Movie review: ‘The Dark Tower’

Long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s epic series is a dud from start to finish

There’s a moment in “The Dark Tower” when gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) is faced with a nightmarish monster and finds one of his revolvers out of ammo. He snaps open the chamber and, in a neat trick of CGI that doesn’t look like CGI, loads it as it spins, thumbing bullets in one after another with impossible speed, before snapping it shut and firing a single shot to take down the beast.

That such a moment lasts less than five seconds and is one of the best parts of the movie tells you all you need to know about “The Dark Tower.”

Based on The Dark Tower book series by Stephen King, the Nikolaj Arcel-directed film is the culmination of at least a decade of work to bring the epic story to the big screen, and its colossal failure — it currently holds an 18 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes — is disappointing for all viewers and especially heartwrenching for fans of the books. The dialogue is predictable, the plot is weak and the characters are paper-thin.

Elba’s gunslinger is on a mission to exact revenge on Walter Paddick, also known as The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer who killed his father and helped destroy most of Roland’s world years ago. While Roland is obsessed with killing Walter, the sorcerer is scheming to destroy the titular Dark Tower, which stands at the nexus point of all worlds and holds back what is basically Armageddon. Walter wants to bring down the Tower and rule over the ashes.

Walter’s plan involves strapping young children into a machine that harvests, for lack of a better word, their “shine,” or mental powers. Somehow this machine turns shine into a powerful laser beam that shoots off into the sky and crashes into the Tower. Walter hopes enough of these hits will eventually destroy it.

Enter Jake Chambers, an 11-year-old boy from New York City who has been having dreams about Roland, Walter and the Tower and who possesses an extraordinarily strong shine — enough, Walter believes, to bring down the Tower completely. Jake, who is determined to find the gunslinger, eventually makes his way to Roland’s world via a magic portal (trust me, it’s much less silly in the books). He meets up with Roland, the two go in search of Walter, and lots of mediocrity ensues.

As a longtime fan of the books, I could tear this movie to shreds about lots of things, but the over-simplification of its sprawling mythology and dumbing down of its complex characters were the biggest offenses. Had Sony Pictures committed to a production on the size and scale of a comparable epic like “The Lord of the Rings” films, there would have been more than enough time and attention for the richly detailed world that King’s series creates.

Instead, “The Dark Tower” is described as both a sequel to the events of the books and a mash-up of the first and third, a baffling decision that ended up crippling what was supposed to be the tentpole of a new franchise. At barely more than an hour and half, the movie falls woefully short of being able to establish the story and develop the characters enough for viewers to care about them.

As a result, the film is muddled and at the same time rushed, hastily running through Roland’s backstory and hurdling toward an anticlimatic finish, all the while presenting him as some kind of fallen superhero who has to be reminded to push aside his blind revenge and save the Tower. It was immensely frustrating to see Roland reduced to such a one-dimensional character, especially because it’s a flat-out rejection of who he is in the novels, wherein his singular purpose for living — his sole reason for existence — is to save the Tower.

It’s what has driven him to survive for many, many years and has made him do some horrible things, but it also gives his character a depth that is entirely absent from movie-Roland.

Movie-Walter was no better; although McConaughey, like Elba, did what he could with what he was given, The Man in Black came off as a caricature of a villain, nodding gravely at instruments in a futuristic lab and taunting Roland with tired one-liners. The film also decided Walter needed superpowers and made him capable of conjuring fire and killing people through mind control; I nearly walked out when he started catching bullets and flinging them back at Roland.

On a lighter note, the film is so chock-full of Easter eggs for King fans that I suspect the author was lurking just off-screen with a basket over his arm for most of it. References to “The Shining,” “IT,” “1408,” “Cujo” and even “Christine” popped up all over the place and brought a ray of sunshine to an otherwise miserable film (in my eyes, anyway). Don’t waste nine dollars a ticket on this at the theater — it’s a cheap Redbox rental at best.