When the original Star Wars trilogy concluded in the 1980s, there were quite a few attempts to launch a similar family-friendly science-fiction/fantasy franchise, and The Dark Tower could be mistaken for one of them. It’s apparently set in the present day, but the rumpled fashions and the dated visual effects have a Reagan-era feel to them, and the story has a second-hand clunkiness.
If you had watched it on VHS 30 years ago, during an all-night video marathon that included Masters of the Universe and The NeverEnding Story, you probably would have been happy with its icky monsters and its dimension-hopping adventures. But watching it in 2017, when you’ve been primed to expect the long-awaited first instalment in a megabudget saga based on a revered series of Stephen King novels, is a different matter. In that light, The Dark Tower is pretty ropey.
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If the novels are renowned for their sprawling, postmodern complexity – King himself turns up as a character – the plot of the film is all too simple. The bland protagonist is Jake (Tom Taylor), a 12-year-old boy who lives in New York with his mother and his not-very-nice stepfather. He keeps having vivid nightmares about battles between good and evil in a galaxy far, far away. And, because he is a boy in a film, he keeps drawing remarkably proficient pencil sketches of these battles, which he obligingly pins all over his bedroom walls.
Eventually, he finds a teleport machine that sends him whooshing from our planet – that is, “Keystone Earth” – to the bleak, post-apocalyptic planet he’s been dreaming about – that is, “Mid-World”. Once there, he encounters the two men who have been cropping up in his visions. First, there is the noble Roland (Idris Elba), a grizzled Wild West-style sharp-shooter who used to be one of the planet’s legendary defenders, the Gunslingers. Next, there is his arch-enemy, Walter (Matthew McConaughey), who is also known as the Man in Black.
With his monochrome wardrobe, his gelled hair, and his tanned, tight-skinned handsomeness, Walter looks as if he should be headlining a conjuring show in Las Vegas
It’s an unhelpful nickname, considering that Roland wears black, too, but it’s certainly accurate: with his monochrome wardrobe, his gelled hair, and his tanned, tight-skinned handsomeness, Walter looks as if he should be headlining a conjuring show in Las Vegas. Instead, he wants to destroy a monumental skyscraper called the Dark Tower (it may or may not be on Mid-World – I’m not sure). The only way to do so, it seems, is to kidnap psychic children from Keystone Earth, and use their amplified brainwaves to zap the tower to pieces. You won’t be surprised to learn that Jake’s own psychic abilities, or “shine”, are just what Walter needs.
To summarise: much of The Dark Tower is set on a desert planet that is definitely not Tatooine, because it has two moons in the sky, rather than two suns. Jake, who is definitely not Luke Skywalker, discovers that he is not an ordinary, mop-topped kid, but an intergalactic saviour with innate supernatural powers. Roland, who is definitely not Obi-Wan Kenobi, is a mysterious loner who teaches Jake how to use antique weaponry, and who is the last in an ancient order of spiritual knights (but definitely not the Jedi). And Walter, who is definitely not Darth Vader, is a nefarious wizard who dresses in black, and who uses his telepathy and telekinesis to kill anyone who gets on his nerves.
To be fair, The Dark Tower is hardly the first film to draw around a Star Wars-shaped template. What counts are the details inside the rough outline. But the director and co-writer, Nicolaj Arcel, has filled it with steam-punk, Western, and Arthurian elements that are far too vague and illogical to make us forget George Lucas’s elegant mythology. Roland explains to Jake that the eponymous tower stops our universe being ravaged by demons, but how does it work? Who built it? Why can children topple it? And why would Walter and his minions want to be overrun by demons, anyway?
The editors’ brief seems to have been to get the film over with as soon as possible
Perhaps a longer version of the film would have answered some of these questions. At 95 minutes, the current version doesn’t even have time to ask them. Admittedly, there is a lot to be said for a summer blockbuster which is trimmer than the now-customary two-to-three hours. But it’s clear that The Dark Tower wasn’t always intended to be as short as it is. There must have been swathes of it that were deemed unusable, because it has been chopped up into bite-sized scraps: some scenes are barely intelligible and some characters are barely there. On Mid-World, for instance, Jake exchanges flirtatious glances with a blonde girl he meets in a remote shanty town, but that’s the beginning and end of their nascent romance. Princess Leia, she ain’t. The editors’ brief seems to have been to get the film over with as soon as possible.
And yet The Dark Tower isn’t a complete disaster. Elba is a tough but twinkle-eyed hero, McConaughey enjoys himself as a reptilian villain, and much of the film gets its goodies-v-baddies job done with workmanlike efficiency. It’s just that it never come across as the grand culmination of a 10-year process to adapt an epic, eight-novel cycle. It comes across as a cash-in that someone scribbled on the back of an envelope after seeing Return of the Jedi.