Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba star in muddled adaptation of Stephen King epic
Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series is a decades-spanning work that traverses a sci-fi Western multiverse rich with allusions to outside classic works (including “The Lord of the Rings” and early Clint Eastwood movies) and King’s other books. It has a legion of fans, almost all of whom are bound to be disappointed by the muddled, confused, hacked-up movie that bears its name.
“The Dark Tower” somehow manages to be ambitious and half-baked. It expects you to buy into its world, a world that begins with an explanation that there is a literal dark tower at the center of the universe that can be brought down by the power of a child’s mind (still with us?), but the film lacks the confidence to make that world believable, or even so unbelievable that you’re compelled to go along for the ride. It’s a theme park ride with the ambivalence of a shoulder-shrugging teen who would rather be looking at his phone.
A visionary filmmaker may have been able to bring this world to life, but Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, making his English language debut, is not him. He never seems sure what movie or even what kind of movie he’s making, and it bounces around between styles the way its characters jump between dimensions. It’s a sci-fi thriller one minute, a buddy Western the next, then it’s a fish-out-of-water story with comic undercurrents. “The Dark Tower” is so many different things that it winds up being nothing.
In the center of this story is Jake (Tom Taylor), an 11-year-old kid in Brooklyn haunted by visions of heroic gunslingers and nefarious black-clad evildoers. He has “the shine,” the ability to see and connect across other worlds, but his explanations of what he sees — along with the crude illustrations of those visions that he pins to his bedroom wall like the obsessed stalker character in any psychological thriller — get him sent off to “psycho camp,” as one of his friends calls it.
By the time he’s ready to get carted off — by henchmen of the head baddie, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), no less — he’s onto the plan, and makes a mad dash for it through the streets of New York. He stumbles upon a warp zone, essentially, and winds up catapulting himself to the world of Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the gunslinger he sees in his visions. They team up, reluctantly at first (of course), to fight the Man in Black.
McConaughey is comically bad in the villain role, playing a sorcerer who is like Al Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate” crossed with, well, Matthew McConaughey. He paces around slowly, his arms behind his back, and calmly eliminates foes who cross him using his “magics.” “Stop breathing,” he says in a tone that sounds like he’s reading a child a bedtime story, and they fall to the ground. Cool.
McConaughey seems as unsure as “The Dark Tower” as to whether he should be going for campiness or treachery, and he winds up coming across just sort of aloof. He needed to go full Nic Cage (or John Travolta in “Battlefield Earth”) in order to make something out of what he was given, but his performance is uncommitted, like Arcel didn’t give him the leeway to go all out and really bite into the role. (Watching him shuffle through “The Dark Tower,” it’s like the McConaissance never happened.)
Elba, on the other hand, shows a spark, even if that spark feels like it’s coming from an entirely different movie. Late in the film, his rough and tumble cowboy winds up back on our planet (annoyingly and repeatedly referred to as “Keystone Earth”) with Jake, and as his character is introduced to sugar (via Coca-Cola) and painkillers for the first time, Elba sells Roland’s reactions to our society’s little pleasures with childlike conviction. It’s the only thing in the movie that works, and you wish that would have been the story’s starting point, the jump-off for an entirely different story.
King’s stories have always been a mixed bag in their cinematic adaptations; for every “Shawshank Redemption” or “The Shining” there have been misfires such as “Maximum Overdrive” or “The Lawnmower Man.” “The Dark Tower” falls in the latter category, and this botch job likely signals its grand plans to launch a franchise are dashed. Maybe in another universe it would have worked, but here on Keystone Earth, “The Dark Tower” is a dud.
‘The Dark Tower’
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action
Running time: 95 minutes