Stephen King’s work is notoriously difficult to adapt, and while there are a few great films based upon his stories, the mediocre ones outnumber them by far. Typically, these adaptations suffer due to the difficulty involved in translating King’s rich character development and broad stories into a limited time frame. The Dark Tower sadly falls into this latter category. The filmmakers chose to use an amalgam of the first novel in the series and a typical fantasy adventure for the plot of the film and the combination does not work well.
The film focuses on Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young teenager from New York City who has been having nightmares about a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) destroying a pillar of stone so tall that it pierces the sky, the titular Dark Tower. He also dreams of a man named Roland (Idris Elba), a gunslinger who seeks vengeance against the Man in Black for crimes committed long ago. Jake is convinced that the tower of his dreams is real and that if it falls our world will end. He eventually finds a portal that takes him to Mid-World, where he finds Roland wandering in the desert. When Jake tells Roland of his dreams about the Man in Black, Roland agrees to bring Jake along on his quest. Their journey takes them from Mid World to our own Earth and back again as they chase their quarry, finding trouble around every corner.
Unfortunately, the climax of The Dark Tower is predictable as it doesn’t deviate from the usual fantasy formula. The film’s inspiration is plainly seen in the setting and plot devices used to move the story along, but it spends too much time reveling in the minutiae of its source material, rather than developing the characters or an interesting narrative. It tries to both separate itself from the books by using a new story and rely on its viewers already having a relationship with the material. It hints at a long history and deep background to the world, but it never gives more than a taste of what that history is. It instead spends its runtime pushing through as many plot points as possible while making sly references that mean nothing to the new viewer and thus don’t enhance the story.
While the story of the film is flawed, the acting is well done. Idris Elba is wonderful as the brooding and silent gunslinger with a single-minded devotion to his mission. Matthew McConaughey rarely plays the villain but this performance shows he is great at it. His portrayal of the Man in Black is terrifying in its selfish cruelty and utter disregard for life, human or otherwise. The chemistry between McConaughey and Elba is apparent and the two men crackle with it when they share the screen. Tom Taylor’s Jake is given almost no development, but Taylor does his best and is convincing in the role. Unfortunately, while the performances are great, the characters are flat and ultimately kind of boring as they are never given a chance to grow.
With a PG-13 rating it’s inevitable that The Dark Tower would be mostly bloodless, but at times it almost feels like a children’s movie with how simplistically it tackles the core narrative. At the same time, there are many references to the series and King’s other material crammed into the film that often feel forced and pointless as they have no place in the story the movie is telling. The Dark Tower has lofty goals, as it seeks to satisfy the fans of the books and appeal to newcomers with a self-contained story, but in doing so it fails at both.