At multiple points during The Dark Tower, the new adaptation of the Stephen King series made by Media Rights Capital, Sony Pictures, and director Nikolaj Arcel, protagonist Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) bellows at his black-clad adversary, Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), “Stop hiding behind your magic and face me!” Roland is the last of the Gunslingers sworn to protect the titular Tower, a spire at the center of the multiverse that wards off destruction by Lovecraftian demons. Padick is a kind of demon himself, a sorcerer who seeks to take down the Tower and unleash the evils outside. Although Roland is largely immune to Padick’s power—when Walter says “Stop breathing,” his other enemies (and innocent bystanders) obey, but Roland breathes on—he’s also incapable of catching his quarry, who’s evaded him for ages.
Dark Tower fans know the feeling. The voluminous series, whose origins date back close to 50 years and whose genre-hopping story now spans eight books (not counting tie-ins to King’s other work) has evaded onscreen adaptation until now. Arcel’s interpretation, which precedes a planned TV series, arrives after a decade-long gestation period, during which first J.J. Abrams and then Ron Howard (who helped produce the Arcel version) were attached to direct before consigning the title to development hell.
Even as the movie crept toward theaters over the past year, the project emitted every possible signal of impending production disaster, including release-date delays; a conspicuous lack of marketing and teasers; reports of reshoots; a lackluster trailer; and late and limited press screenings. Finally, two days before the release, Variety reported that the production had been “plagued with problems and clashing visions,” as studio anxiety about Arcel’s early cut led to intervention by Howard (the Han Solo stand-alone film fixer) and writer-director-producer Akiva Goldsman, whose recent credits (Winter’s Tale, Insurgent, The 5th Wave, Rings, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Transformers: The Last Knight) suggest someone who’s in need of notes himself. Nor was it reassuring that King gave the movie his stamp of approval, since he’s endorsed forgettable film and movie versions of his work in the past.
By opening night, that string of postponements and portents had left series loyalists screaming, “Face me,” too; however ugly the finished film, at least the wait would be over. Unfortunately, their fears weren’t unfounded. While it’s not quite as terrible as the prerelease timeline indicated it could be, the Dark Tower adaptation doesn’t stand on its own or face its source material in a satisfying way.
Like Assassin’s Creed, the poorly received video game adaptation from earlier this year, The Dark Tower reached theaters burdened both by the high hopes of fans and by the baggage of repeated former failures to make good movies out of related properties (video games, in Assassin’s Creed’s case, and King books, in Dark Tower’s). And also like Assassin’s Creed, it’s an uninspired and inartfully made action movie that will probably be perceived as something even worse because of the IP’s popularity and the lineage of lousy adaptations to which it belongs.
In its complete, cobbled-together cut, The Dark Tower runs 95 minutes. With apologies to my colleague K. Austin Collins’s shorter-movie movement, that’s not enough time for a film that was intended to turn a sprawling series of books, totaling roughly 4,000 pages, into a tentpole franchise for Sony. Rather than follow the path traced by the first book, which would have yielded a self-contained story that promised much more to come, the movie is both a sequel to the series and a sweeping distillation of some of its events. Adapting Dark Tower at all is a tall order. Adapting Dark Tower in an hour and a half is impossible.
Contrary to Variety’s report about the bad feedback to test screenings, the movie’s mythology isn’t incoherent. (Maybe the reshoots made a difference.) It’s just rushed—and, as a result, not rich, too simplistic to confuse or to fulfill. It takes onscreen time to convey the offscreen time that Roland’s quest has taken, and the near-eternal nature of the series’ cyclical struggle between two quasi-eternal opponents just doesn’t come across in one shoehorned-in flashback scene starring Roland’s Allstate Insurance actor dad. There’s little indication of how Roland and Walter’s battle began, or why Roland is uniquely immune to Walter’s Kilgrave-esque orders. The only reason to root for Roland, beyond his well-worn arc of revenge giving way to redemption, is Elba’s presence—which at times is almost sufficient. Casting isn’t an issue here: Elba and McConaughey do the best that they can with the flatter or more cartoonish movie versions of their characters, and Tom Taylor holds his own as psychic kid (and audience stand-in) Jake Chambers. But their acting is undercut by a somber, condensed script that swerves between action and exposition, embeds all of its humor in a single exchange, and suffers from its PG-13 rating, as well as a compose-by-numbers score and a CGI budget that Arcel appears to exhaust midway through one effects-heavy fight.
The Dark Tower movie, like the Dark Tower books, is packed with connections to King’s other works: The script goes so far as to rename the series’ psychic ability, “the Touch,” to “the Shine,” even though there’s already a reference to The Shining in an earlier scene. Over the course of thousands of book pages, a sprinkling of self-references help impart an impression of interlocking worlds, all joined to the Tower and serving the Beam. In a 95-minute movie, it plays as frantic fan service, a distracting scavenger hunt for King creations; Ooh, I spy a low man in a yellow coat. To make those moments more pointless, the viewers who are likeliest to catch all of those Easter eggs are also the ones who’ll be most upset by the corners—hell, whole books—cut along the way.
With Spike’s The Mist airing now, AT&T’s Mr. Mercedes coming next week, and an It movie remake due out in September, we’re right at the nexus of the latest concerted effort to turn King’s many brilliant books into equally compelling movies and TV shows. Done right, The Dark Tower could have been the backbone of a quality King Cinematic Universe. As it is, the film can barely support itself, let alone serve as the scaffolding that ties together other worlds than these. In that sense, The Dark Tower is an argument in favor of the creative control exerted by the likes of Lucasfilm and Marvel. Arcel told Variety that he would have “left instantly” had someone tried to take over his editing room, and Modi Wiczyk, cofounder of Media Rights Capital, added, “We would never marginalize or remove a director or dare to edit a film.” But from the studios’ perspective, the movie—and the fledgling franchise that was also at stake—should matter more than the director’s feelings, especially since that director wasn’t a masterful stylist who brought a distinctive look to the film. If additional oversight could have helped, offending Arcel would have been worth it. But “if,” as Roland knows, is the only word a thousand letters long.
Arcel’s IMDb page attributes the following quote to him: “I have this idea that I wanna make a movie within every genre before I die.” By directing The Dark Tower, which blends sci-fi, fantasy, horror, Westerns, and more, he could have crossed several genres off the list with one film. Instead he made something generic—and in doing so, damaged The Dark Tower worse than Walter did.
By the end, The Dark Tower can’t seem to decide whether it’s positioning itself for a sequel or content to conclude here. If the movie’s ticket sales match its review scores, a sequel may not be an option. Hope for the Dark Tower faithful (whose broken hearts will mend) lies in Hollywood’s endless, Rolandesque capacity to remake the same stories. This version reportedly cost only $66 million, which means that even in the worst case, it won’t bomb badly enough to preclude the possibility of another adaptation attempt. And even if another Dark Tower movie never gets made, the TV series—which will be written and run by former Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara, and in which Elba is also supposed to appear—could be better than its big-screen cousin. Early indications are that the show, unlike the movie, will wisely pick up at the start of the saga, and a 10- to 13-episode order will allow Mazzara more time to linger on the rooms of ruin, stairways standing in darkness, and spinning spiders that make Mid-World what it is.