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The Dark Tower Review

By Lora Grady

A Towering Disappointment

In order to maintain a professional perspective on the material I am considering I generally avoid writing film reviews from a first-person perspective; it's the way I was taught. But every once in a while a work comes along that requires a few personal revelations in order to contextualize my impressions. "The Dark Tower," based on the epic multi-volume series by renowned horror writer Stephen King, is one of those offerings.

It's no stretch to say that I'm a King aficionado; I own nearly everything he has written. I've attended book signings and speaking engagements, and I'm just as intrigued by his observations on life and approach to the art of writing as I am compelled by the tales Mr. King weaves. The first time I picked up "It" I couldn't put it down (I almost mean this literally; back in college I read "It" in two sittings. I may have been engaged in some academic procrastinating at the time). And, I'm currently rereading the expanded version of "The Stand" as I slog through cross-training miles on the stationary bike at the gym. Bonus: I'm getting a hell of an arm workout along with my low-grade cardio hit.


All this is to say that I'm mighty conversant with the expanded King universe and I've never shied away from his epic works. However, I haven't quite been able to finish "The Dark Tower." I'm about halfway through the series and mean to pick it up again one of these days...and I've been telling myself that for the last four years. Still, I was looking forward to its cinematic debut, and I presumed that I would have enough background to be able to sit back and enjoy the arrival of Roland Deschain on the big screen.


The film adaptation of "The Dark Tower" throws viewers right in at the deep end, and those who have not read the books will be unaware that the children we see in the opening scene reluctantly leaving a field of play in response to a claxon alarm and reporting to a control room where they are strapped into chairs and forced into psychic battle are Breakers, being held captive for their telepathic abilities (whew). Their unwanted mission is to direct destructive energy toward the Dark Tower, an edifice that sits at the center of the universe and holds all worlds together. Engaged in battle over the Tower's fate are Walter o'Dim, aka The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club"), who wants to see it fall, and Roland Deschain, The Gunslinger (Idris Elba, "Star Trek Beyond"), who has sworn to destroy the Man in Black. Their epic battle ranges across a place called Mid-World. Simple enough, right?

Except that we're seeing this all throgh the dreams of 11 year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who lives in New York City and fears that he might just be going crazy. Jake's parents want to send him to a psychiatric hospital, but the staff who come to take him away turn out to be agents sent by the Man in Black. You see, Jake's one of those psychic kids, and he's on track to become a Breaker...

This is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scads of story that "The Dark Tower" attempts to tackle. There are a few moments of elucidation and grace here, but for the most part it's a confusing kaleidoscope of who's-doing-what-and-where-the-heck-are-they?? The story flips back and forth between Earth and Mid-World by way of a black hole-esque portal that, if you don't know the backstory, comes across as something of a first-act deus ex machina. Jake finds himself in Mid-World and meets up with Roland and there are touches of eerie, elegiac beauty in this place where "the world has moved on," but just as the film settles into a rhythm there it's interrupted by more distracting bombast.

Mr. Elba's spare, elegant portrayal of Roland is "Tower's" highlight, and fans will be gratified by his delivery of some of the series' iconic lines ("He who kills with his gun has forgottent the face of his father. I kill with my heart"), as well as one long, slow shot of Roland aiming and firing at an enemy that beautifully illustrates the legendary skill of the heroic Gunslingers. But where Mr. Elba chooses restraint, Mr. McConaughey takes the opposite tack. His hammy Man in Black is all unmotivated menace as he bullies the minions in his sci-fi lair or stalks the streets of NYC, waving his hand and issuing death sentences. Here's a villain with an utter lack of regard for life, whose goal is the destruction of multiple worlds, the rending of the very universe, but we are never provided with a single why.

Oscar winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind") ought to know his way around a book-to-screen adaptation by now - other successful works include the screenplays for "The Client," "A Time to Kill," "The DaVinci Code," and "Practical Magic." But Mr. Goldsman tripped up the last time he attempted to bring a segment of a larger work to life onscreen, with 2014's critically panned, "Winter's Tale." Either these rangy epics aren't his forte, or it's time to accept that some books truly are unfilmable.

It's difficult to know who the audience is for "The Dark Tower." Uninitiated viewers will be flummoxed by the choppiness of the storylines and the tendency to play keep-away with vital pieces of story information. Longtime fans of Mr. King's work will have fun catching subtle references to other properties in the canon (look for the winking Pennywise reference at the abandoned amusement park) but will likely be frustrated and perhaps even outraged by the simplistic treatment of this work that ultimately functions as the King Rosetta Stone, a key to understanding how all the facets of his fictional worlds fit together. Whichever you are, if you consider exploring this "Tower" it's probably best to keep in mind the warning you'd get about any dark, scary place: enter at your own risk.

What did you think?

Movie title The Dark Tower
Release year 2017
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary This film version of Stephen King's multi-volume epic throws viewers in at the deep end. If you haven't read the books you'll likely be lost. If you have read the books you won't fare much better.
View all articles by Lora Grady
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