Of his 56 novels written over 43 years, Stephen King has most often referred to his eight-volume epic “The Dark Tower” as his magnum opus. Spanning multiple genres and literary universes, the series tells the story of Roland Deschain, the last of a noble group of pseudo-knights called gunslingers, who constantly strives to reach the titular tower, which functions as a kind of lynchpin at the center of the multiverse, keeping the forces of darkness at bay.
Due to the at times outlandish nature of the books, a direct adaptation would have been nearly impossible. There’s even an argument to be made that to have done so would have missed the point of them entirely, as one of the major themes of the series is the power of art to create new worlds. The problem with the adaptation of “The Dark Tower” isn’t that changes were made. It’s that the changes that were made resulted in a film that only fleetingly brushes up against the epic tone to which it aspires.
The most baffling of director Nikolaj Arcel’s creative decisions comes into focus early on, as much of the focus takes place in the real world as opposed to more fantastic settings. Early scenes are devoted almost entirely to the relationship between Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor, “Broken Hearts”) and his family, as the young boy feels distanced from his family due to visions of the Dark Tower. Not only is this type of broken family dynamic — communicated through longing glances at photos of happier times — commonplace, but it is at a total disconnect with the rest of the story. Was there really no better way to begin an epic western-fantasy-horror piece than with 20 minutes of generic family drama?
What’s more is that after a brief jaunt to Mid-World, a post-apocalyptic alternate dimension, the drama returns to New York City so Roland (Idris Elba, “Star Trek Beyond”) can partake in fish-out-of-water jokes. It’s not that Elba doesn’t sell the humor of the moments, or even that humor itself is unwelcome, but juxtaposed against a quest to save an infinite array of universes from an impending army of Satanic creatures, these kind of jokes have not only been done before, but they feel completely out of place.
Perhaps what’s most disappointing about this is that, for the too-brief scenes set in Mid-World, “The Dark Tower” is actually quite a bit of fun. As Roland, Elba provides a presence that is perhaps never as commanding as it should be, but still embodies the stoic, tragic essence of the character that makes him so interesting. His scenes with Taylor in particular bring out the best of both performers, as Roland is forced to become a surrogate father figure to the boy. Elba also gets the best scene of the film, as a set piece near the climax allows him to reveal the full range of Roland’s gunslinging prowess in an undeniably entertaining display that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the action.
The undisputed star of the show is Matthew McConaughey (“Gold”) as the Man in Black, Walter Paddock, Roland’s nemesis and the greatest villain Stephen King has ever written. There’s a palpable joy McConaughey takes in his every action as Walter. Every word drips with evil. Every step is filled with a self-confident swagger. The sadistic glee he takes in ordering people to “stop breathing” is almost contagious. Like the world he inhabits, Walter is over-the-top, but McConaughey plays it so convincingly that he’s hard not to like.
But the best parts of the Mid-World segments, brief as they may be in comparison to the monotony of the real world, is that they feel unique. In those moments, Arcel’s film contains seeds of the ideas that caused millions to fall in love with the world and characters of King’s novels. Had they been expanded upon, “The Dark Tower” could have been something truly special, but with such large swaths of the runtime dedicated to what amounts to comparatively bland filler, the film will prove disappointing to fans and newcomers alike.