By the looks of things, The Dark Tower – the film – has been shot, stabbed, poisoned, manhandled, fed to the lions, and drawn-and-quartered on its way to release, sending the scattered remains of Stephen King’s I’m-told-dense seven-novel book series to random corners of the Earth. At a scant, emaciated 95 minutes, the filmic adaptation of the tale has been limned and trimmed down to a shockingly skeletal version of the story. This isn’t inherently an evil. We live in an era of blockbuster bloat and vacuously overdriven narratives that slog through 150 minutes of screen time, dragging their thematic underbelly on the ground as the asphalt scraps away any of the depth hanging beneath all the filmic fat.
Comparatively, The Dark Tower is maniacally expedient, a 100-mile-an-hour lamborghini that turns into a wheezing, huffing junker within minutes. It falls apart before our eyes, struggling to keep its intestines inside its near-hollow body cavity. It’s deeply flawed, but at least it has the common courtesy and goodwill to end itself before it commits to too much damage. The Dark Tower has a faint, barely-beating heart, but at only 95 minutes, you don’t have to wade through corpulent, clogged arteries to stab it with a stake and put it to eternal rest.
Look. Messes are the nervous system of revolutionary cinema, inventing problems for themselves and working their way through them in exciting ways. I love films that leave their welters and lesions wide open to be acknowledged as flaws, the casualties of works – look at this summer’s Valerian for an example – trying too hard rather than not enough. The Dark Tower is a faithless adaptation of King, but there’s a value in a film having enough faith in itself – not in its source material – to follow its alternate ambitions away from the novel as far as possible. I love disobedient, dysfunctional adaptations with a passion. The greatest adaptations of Shakespeare – Orson Welles’ Othello and Chimes at Midnight, Kurosawa’s Ran – are defiantly unkempt concoctions, courageous enough to carve their own path with the machete of sheer cinematic brio.
But The Dark Tower is strange in all the wrong ways, like a roughed-up, mangy little dog of a film scurrying to and fro and then toppling over after 95 minutes without having tired out or stopped to rest once before. I am all for films with a spellbinding lack of oversight, giddy and eccentric madcap fantasies-of-self where every vision of existence must be crammed into tight running-times for fear your notebook storing these ideas might be stolen by a fan or burnt up by the fires of your ego. The hope for The Dark Tower is a fascinatingly inductive film in this mode, a slurry of disparate and divergent images and sounds that accrue meaning through the audience’s mind rather than being shoveled onto the film through long scenes and longer speeches. Comparatively, The Dark Tower is semi-incomprehensible, but not courageously incomprehensible.
The prelude is courageously incomprehensible: a strange, even Malick-esque prism of oblique information and diaphanous visual particles that rhyme not narratively but rhythmically, courtesy of director Nikolaj Arcel (who has schlepped around in development hell for five years since his 2012 film A Royal Affair, dragging the ball and chain of The Dark Tower around). That earlier film was a decent costume drama with tasty morsels – revealed to be thorny shards – of political intrigue baked in, but it did not mark him a born storyteller, let alone a natural visualist. This new film materializes a baleful image or two and at least tries – probably by virtue of its screenplay, not up to the task to tell us anything – to rely on its imagery to underwrite the story (always a boon in a blockbuster).
But nothing lingers in the mind. Certainly, it is to the film’s benefit that it doesn’t linger in-the-moment. It boasts more in common with other scrappy ‘10s sci-fi grindhouse rumblers like Dredd than a grandiose, self-important franchise-in-the-making. But The Dark Tower stops short of truly forgetting the skies and the heavens and diving straight into the gutter, which keeps it from accruing the grotty anti-eloquence of a film like Dredd. The problem is, The Dark Tower is half-torn in its ambitions, part blockbuster, part B-movie, and it remains hopelessly suspended in animation between the two, strung up by its own brand of nonsense. It passes in one ear and out the other.
As for the narrative? The plot of the thing is … present, but I wouldn’t say accounted for. It’s one of those young-teen-connected-to-faraway-land things that slobbers out a half-assed family drama in the opening bits and then promptly forgets it. The kid is Jake (Tom Taylor), haunted by nightmares of a tall, dark, (and handsome?) tower, a man in black, and a gunslinger. Turns out he’s linked into some interdimensional whatzit, and his animus is exactly what mr. man in black needs to power a “beamquake” (I’m not making this up, and I have a liberal arts degree) that can topple the tower. Oh, and the tower (I like to call him Jeff) apparently protects the fabric of reality or whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is a heroic but fallen gunslinger named Roland is hell-bent on revenge against this man in black. And the gunslinger is Idris Elba to boot. And this man in black is The Man in Black – which is presumably his honorary, since he also goes by Walter – and he’s Matthew McConaughey.
The script plays colossally fast and loose with its mythology and does not have any vested interest in explaining who the two principals are, which, for my money, is eminently to its benefit, transforming them from three-dimensional characters into iconographically flat archetypes in a mythic tall-tale handed down between generations. True, I suspect it feels like a counterfeit to fans of the series. But to my mind, a 90-minute duel between Elba and McConaughey sounds like just the ticket, especially with Elba brooding with a sly undercurrent of boiling humor and McConaughey swaggering and strutting through his black suit and ham-fisted lines with diabolical aplomb.
My problem, then, isn’t the film’s disobedience to the source material, but the idiocy and half-heartedness of its dissent. In my humble opinion, it hasn’t been ravaged enough; rather than fascinating shambles and tatters, we get mere murmurs of difference from conventional blockbuster form. The problem, ultimately, is that it stumbles and falls in the cracks of badness rather than valiantly plunging into them. Its minute weirdnesses essentially defray the boredom, but they do not yield any knowledge, nor do they accomplish anything else.