Saturday, August 12, 2017

Movie Review: The Dark Tower (2017)

Long ago when I was in high school, I read some of my father's older editions of Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, illustrated by the awesome Michael Whelan. I think there were only three--The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Wastelands. I eventually finished the series--they're what started me toward writing Battle for the Wastelands--and I eagerly awaited the movie I heard was coming.

The Plot

Teenage Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is having dreams of fiery apocalypse. The psychiatrist his mother and stepfather are sending him to think they have to do with the death of his firefighter father, but it turns out he's having psychic visions of another world. The villainous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is sending agents to abduct children with psychic potential to assist his plan to undermine the Dark Tower in the center of the cosmos, to allow the horrors of the outer darkness through.

Fortunately Jake is also having visions of Roland, the last gunslinger (Idris Elba). Jake escapes the agents of the Man in Black into Mid-World, left in ruins by a long-ago apocalyptic war, and soon meets Roland. The two have to survive attacks by the minions of the Man in Black as well as stop him from bringing down the Tower...

The Good

*The beginning is very well-done. We start out with some idyllic 1950s-esque suburbia (only more peacefully multi-racial) full of children and teens playing with each other. Then the air raid sirens start going off. Only instead of some kind of attack, it turns out that many of the children are being summoned into an ominous black pyramid by people who are obviously non-human creatures wearing human disguises. And did I mention this little idyll and the horror within sit atop a mesa surrounded by post-apocalyptic desolation?

*Although we don't see the Man in Black's ability to destroy civilizations by manipulating people, we do see in the small scale. He telepathically torments Roland and Jake with visions of their fathers and tries to play on Roland's guilt for those he failed to protect, he plays on Jake's stepfather's resentment of him, etc. We also see his pettiness--he twists a girl's mind to hate her mother to amuse himself, he forces minions who failed to kill each other, etc.

*There are some good visuals, like when Jake first arrives on Mid-World and spots the sand-encrusted ruins of a tank from the war that caused the world to "move on." There's also what looks like a giant mall with its own mass transit station, with a more primitive village of people wearing what look like modern clothes in its shadow. Let's be realistic--if there was some kind of apocalyptic event tomorrow, there'd still be continuity in culture, dress, etc.

*Tom Taylor does a good job as Jake. Matthew McConaughey is all right as the Man in Black. I'd hoped for better from him--see below. Elba doesn't really have a lot to say or emote as Roland, although he does the action scenes quite well.

*There are a lot of good action sequences and the movie is generally entertaining.

*There are some amusing one-liners here and there.

The Bad

*As someone who's read the books I recognized a lot of the events, Easter Eggs, etc. in the film, but so much more could have been said about them. The battle in whose aftermath we see the Man in Black kill a wounded man, the "last stand," is almost certainly the Battle of Jericho Hill, or some alternate-reality version of it. It's never actually named, nor do we see the actual battle or who was fighting in it. They tried to squeeze too much into too short a running time and although what emerged was decent, The Dark Tower is supposed to be an American Lord of the Rings. This could have been a trilogy of films at least. Maybe there's a 2-3 hour director's cut somewhere and I hope to God there is because there's so much they could have explored but didn't.

*The film makes Jake for all intents and purposes the protagonist when he doesn't even show up in the book series until later. Roland is the protagonist of The Gunslinger, but we don't meet him until well into the film. One of the critics on The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast flat-out described him as a sidekick to Jake, which has an unfortunate Hollywood history. I wouldn't go that far, but I'd be far more interested in seeing Roland's adventures, perhaps cross-cut with Jake's story in New York, until they cross paths. That would be a good chance to work in some episodes from Roland's journey in The Gunslinger, for example.

*Per the above, although there're some good character material for the Man in Black, he could still be developed more. In the books, for example, he had an affair with Roland's mother and the teen Roland accidentally killed her while trying to kill him. He's held a grudge for her death ever since--in The Dark Tower, the last novel in the cycle, it's his "most of all" reason for hating Roland. Here all we see is him mocking Roland about his "soft-skinned mother" (implying he had an acquaintance with said skin) and calling Roland's father a poor excuse for a man. A man in love (or at least in lust) with a married woman might comment on her looks and look down on her husband, but the full story isn't here. It would have been more interesting if the death of Gabrielle Deschain was part of what fueled his destructive tendencies. In The Wolves of the Calla, he does have enough feelings to be hurt when accused of cruelty, for example.

*In the commercials the Man in Black comes off as a lot more menacing and powerful. I'd expected McConaughey to play him with more intensity than what we got on-screen. The death of a character very important to Roland early on could be a good place to show this--in the scene the Man in Black basically tells the character to stop breathing and he does. He then walks away, catching the single shot Roland shoots at him almost offhand. If he's deflecting and dodging bullets all while psychically forcing a guy to suffocate himself, it'd be a lot scarier.

*There's an incursion from the outer darkness that's meant to illustrate what horrors will invade reality if the Tower falls, but it happens at night and it's too dark to really see just what kind of critter that is.

*The film starts to drag toward the middle. I think I remember looking at my watch.

Many of the criticisms I'm posting here are echoed and put into words more coherently by The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast's review of the film. Gotta give credit where it's due.

The Verdict

A rather shallow take on a much richer mythology. If there's not going to be a sequel, I hope there's a much longer director's cut out there somewhere. I do remember seeing a still of McConaughey walking through an icy wasteland past some corpses and whistling, there were scenes in commercials of mutant goons in the desert that weren't in the film either, and neither was the line where Jake asks if the Man in Black is the devil and Roland says he's worse. There might be more out there. 7.5 out of 10.

No comments:

Post a Comment