Aug 4, 2017

Review: "The Dark Tower" Isn't the Worst Stephen King Adaptation Ever, Just the Most Disappointing

Scene from The Dark Tower
There's a lot to consider when developing a movie around someone's self-proclaimed magnum opus, especially as one as expansive and heady as Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" saga. It's a world of fantasy, western, horror, and every possible genre. It's the story that supposedly connects everything that he's written over his 40+ year career. Considering that this is far from the first Stephen King movie, does director Nikolaj Arcel's The Dark Tower learn anything from what worked before to make King's arguably greatest and lengthiest story into its own visual masterpiece? Not exactly. In fact, far from it. What the film does is cut out everything that makes the world interesting and favors a bare bones approach that will appeal to those who don't know one iota of plot details from the books. The "fans" who would have patience for the film's butchering of continuity will likely ask for their money back. Unlike the book, it's far from the greatest Stephen King adaptation in existence. In fact, it may actually hold the honor of being the most disappointing, instead.
The biggest ordeal of all is trying to separate the book from its adaptation. In theory, they both have the same characters fighting towards the same goal: the all-controlling Dark Tower. However, readers of the series will be quick to see the basic outline of the film as being, if nothing else, problematic. At 95 minutes, it doesn't strike confidence as a story encompassing over 4,000 pages of material. Also with a PG-13 rating, it has to be a tad bloodless - and the books are far too vulgar to make that seem like a good idea. Readers who have read even a section of any of the books will remember the eye-popping detail of worlds joined together with monsters existing in a western setting just like rattlesnakes and scorpions. While the film isn't entirely devoid of the supernatural, there's not exactly a heart-stopping moment on par with discovering lobster monstrosities (or "lobstrocities") or giant robotic bears or a manic depressive talking locomotive. 
Why does this all matter? Because "The Dark Tower" as a franchise has been full of wonder. It may be self-indulgent, but it's the most assured grab bag that King has ever compiled. He throws in gallows humor alongside drug trips, dated racial stereotypes, and a deeper pathos. It would be one thing if this film tried to cram the entire series into one film and featured its most ridiculous elements. Instead, it tries to zap everything in favor of a story; one to introduce to audiences who aren't comfortable hearing the clever lingo and seeing protagonist Roland Deschaines (Idris Elba) have missing fingers. In fairness, Elba does a lot right with playing Roland. His ability to play a paternal figure for Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is key to what works in the film. Even then, the film disposes of parts of their chemistry that works - such as passing the time with riddles - in favor of less interesting character development moments. The Dark Tower's biggest issue is not that it's a butchering of its source material, but that it unfortunately makes it into one of the most generic fantasy films of the year.
As a standalone film, it does little to make the journey into the film's Mid-World all that exciting. Whereas the books features great artwork that made it seem grandiose and awe-inspiring, Mid-World on screen feels a bit lifeless, choosing darker cinematography for the big action beats, only ever cutting to decent daytime western scenery when it's time for exposition. The flaw in Mid-World is that it doesn't feel new or exciting. It feels familiar, and in some ways the film's very construct of portals feels ripped more from Stargate than King. Every interesting moment - of which there's many that start but never develop - feels like fan service done wrong. In an early scene, Jake enters Mid-World through a haunted house. In the books, it's an intense journey full of mystery that showed how dimensions were joined. In the film, it's more like a blip, counting for no more than a minute of screen time. Anything that's interesting is thus removed.
The toughest question is how this film could've been better. There's no denying that a great movie could be made from this source material. Given that it's been in production for decades, The Dark Tower should've been a triumphant culmination of a rich career. Instead, it features basic references to King's other novels and does little to enrich the one it's focusing on. King himself claims that a sequel should be in the works (and Rated R this time) along with a TV series. The issue is that "The Dark Tower" should've been adapted chronologically instead of all at once. The details are too hard for newbies to understand anyways. Now the question is more that between the almost universal bad reviews (receiving a poignant 19% on Rotten Tomatoes: which almost feels like an intentional book reference as well as a literal bad sign), who is going to care? Fans feel cheated and it doesn't seem likely that new people will come to the series because of The Dark Tower. What is there to do?
Considering that the five screenwriters includes TWO Oscar winners (Akiva Goldsman and Anders Thomas Jensen), one could only have hoped that the story would be more lively. In fact, one could've hoped that it would've featured more of the memorable characters that populated the books, including Roland's abandoned friends who joined him on the quest for the Dark Tower. There's so much missing that it feels underwhelming and a bad sign of leaving these people in charge of expanding upon the universe. Will they actually do ANYTHING that is loyal to the books, or will they leave more of the wonderment out? It's hard to tell, but The Dark Tower will fit nicely on Goldsman's resume alongside Batman & Robin and Winter's Tale as outright turkeys.
The world of King movies is full of mediocrity, but usually it's because those stories are second-tier works from an enviably productive author. "The Dark Tower" is widely regarded as one of his best works with infinite possibilities. Anyone who merely looks up the books' accompanying art work will understand how bland and uninspired The Dark Tower looks by comparison. It's disappointing because, despite having all of the tools available, the filmmakers couldn't quite land on a distilled example of what makes the books so brilliant. Fans who wanted that great adaptation will likely resort to Star Wars prequel level hysteria over its blandness. It isn't technically the worst King movie ever, but it is a poor representation of a great series - and that may actually be worse. 

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