Film Review: ‘The Dark Tower’ does not shine

After years of rocky planning and a troubled production, today (August 4) finally sees the release of The Dark Tower, which will pretty much officially mark the end of the summer movie-going season. And it’s bound to piss people off.

To make things crystal clear, I have no prior love for this property. Despite my nerd coat having many colors, I’ve never been able to get into the Stephen King-penned series — something about the mythos just seemed a little inaccessible to me, and the series itself is one hell of a commitment, spanning over thousands of pages — but I’ve known people who love it deeply and madly. And, to be frank, most of them have steeled themselves for this to be an utter disaster, something so bad and incomprehensible that they’ll be embarrassed to show their faces in public for years for fear of mockery from gas station attendants and Subway sandwich artists.

So for those wondering, The Dark Tower isn’t the worst film I’ve seen this year, nor is it worse than fellow Sony release The Emoji Movie, and it has a couple of cool performances in it. But it’s one of the most efficiently mediocre and boring releases to hit theaters in recent memory, and will probably have less in common with your average studio tentpole than it will with that Inhumans pilot they’re going to be showing in IMAX in a couple of weeks.

Ostensibly directed by Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), who should have taken his name off the project once the runtime dipped under 90 minutes, the movie’s actually a product of the same garbage braintrust responsible that always seems to ruin cash-in nerd properties. It’s Sony’s film, and they think if they pack it with enough King references and keep it nice and short, they’ll be able to sell it to a network later on as long as it squeaks by something like The Mummy at the worldwide box office. So they’ve taken an interesting property, and tried to squeeze it into the same old template. Stop me if this sounds familiar to you, non-fans.

Jake Edwards, a psychic conspicuously English-sounding teen from New York, is our protagonist here, and he’s uncomfortably squeezed into the same bullshit “hero’s journey” nonsense that defines every studio protagonist these days. You’ll recognize his powers as “shining,” just like Danny in the titular film, and they mention it about every 10 seconds here. He’s got a mom with a weird accent and a step-father who hates him, so you know he’s as relatable as they come. He also likes to draw weird shit about towers and men in black, and resents the kids and his shrink who tell him it’s all bullshit. Jake knows that something bad is coming, and that bad thing takes the form of The Man in Black (a wonderfully campy Matthew McConaughey, not Johnny Cash), an extra-dimensional sorcerer whose main weakness is the legal action that the production was threatened with if they tried to use the name he goes by in the books. He’s got an army of rat-people, too, so that’s dope.

But because of his visions and psychic powers and stuff, Jake’s actually the key to saving the universe or destroying it and yadda yadda yadda. You know how this goes — it’s the validation and affirmation of the paranoid bullied kid and his poo-pooed fantasies, though this time instead of a colorful cast of Transformers or Rebels, he’s given the help of a Gunslinger named Roland (a gruff-ass Idris Elba), who’s basically a Knight of the Round Table if he were blended with your average Leone character. Elba’s cool as shit, and while I get why he’s not the POV character here (though Sony might be surprised what kinds of oddities audiences can roll with if you just give them the slightest bit of credit), it’s a massive fucking bummer whenever he’s not on screen. Same with McConaughey; I really enjoyed whatever the hell he was doing here, though one wonders what his performance would read to an audience that hadn’t already seen Jessica Jones, as his “magicks” depend on so much of the same kind of manipulation that David Tennant perfected in that series, but with all of that nagging “character” stuff that got in the way there. Decked out like David Blaine’s psycho brother, he’s got a compelling presence here, and has one scene involving chicken that’s worth seeing when it inevitably hits Youtube. We all should remember that the McConaissance started with his villainous role in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, and it’s a delight to see him back in that mode.

The studio has crafted an impossibly ugly film here, with a color palette full of greys and browns and visual effects that would have been embarrassing in 2004. The locations in midworld are bland and empty, where your standard fantasy desert landscapes clash and standard western border towns (I got ample flashbacks to the Steven Spielberg-produced Terra Nova once Roland and Jake find a small mining town) with Yavin IV from the Star Wars films.

And as for Keystone Earth, though it’s nice to see a production actually filming on the streets of New York nowadays, you get a sense they only had a couple of blocks to work with. You wonder why they’d even make this in the first place if they were going to make it look like such garbage, and why they just wouldn’t do their due diligence and find some nugget of what the fans truly love about the series. And I can see why they do! I mean that; I walked away with a decent appreciation of why people enjoy The Dark Tower series, as opposed to, say, the Divergent series, and so much of it has to do with that world that King crafted. It’s such an interesting collision of genres — high fantasy, science-fiction, the western — and it’d be intoxicating and just so… weird to see it on screen, outside of the aims of a multimedia conglomerate looking to craft a backdoor pilot for their television show.

That, in fact, is where The Dark Tower truly wants to wind up, perhaps on TNT, sandwiched between reruns of Falling Skies and The Last Ship late at night, where we can lap them up mindlessly without having to really worry about all that pesky “quality.” All of the casting, aside from Elba and McConaughey (who aren’t above TV themselves and are easily re-castable here), suggests a bias towards actors that a cheap studio show could grab for a full-season commitment. It’s bland enough to provide inoffensive thrills, and might be even a small amount of fun provided you have some quality kush, decent snacks, and witty friends. Even then, after about 10 minutes, it wouldn’t be compelling enough to prevent the most inattentive viewer from switching over to Drone Racing or something on one of the auxiliary ESPN channels. So why on Earth would you see this in a theater if you weren’t devoted to the material itself? If you have to go see a Stephen King movie in a theater this year or your captors will kill you, just wait for It. That actually looks like it might be a movie, and you should just spend this 90 minutes doing laundry or something. You can live without this empty mediocrity.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.