The Dark Tower

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 4, 2017

Idris Elba stars in 'The Dark Tower'
Idris Elba stars in 'The Dark Tower'  

Evidently, if one were to draw a map of the multiverse it would look like a pie, with different parallel universes (maybe hundreds of them) constituting the individual slices. Common elements -- life, technology, civilization, well-ordered physics -- seem to trundle sequentially through these sections of reality, so that if you're living in a currently functional slice you have a reality with recognizable cause and effect, plus niceties like cities that aren't in ruins. If you live in a place where "The world moved on" long ago, however, you dwell in confusion, desolation, a constant threat of violence, and the skeletal remains of amusement parks. One such place, mind you, is Mid-World, where this movie is partly set.

In the In the middle of the multiverse's pie is a massive, cloud-piercing tower that serves as a great battery to power all of existence and generates a shield to keep it safe from what lies beyond the cosmos as we know it. Evidently, what's out there is Hell itself, filled with "darkness and fire." Oh, and demons: Nasty, hungry, and slithery, they are just awaiting their chance to pierce the barrier into our world and make a meal of us.

This, as best I can tell, is the cosmology of "The Dark Tower," the Nikolaj Arcel-directed screen adaptation-slash-sequel to Stephen King's epic seven-volume (and two novellas, but who's counting?) series. The books chronicle the quests and adventures of Roland (played by Idris Elba in the movie), a gunslinger and knight errant whose twin .45 caliber six-shooters were manufactured by melting down the legendary sword Excalibur. In the literary series, Roland has a whole posse (and they show up here, as well, though almost in bit parts), as well as a small rogue's gallery of adversaries.

Screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen, together with Arcel, focus their script on only one foe, a sorcerer called Walter, more commonly known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). They also focus pretty much on a single companion for Ronald, a kid named Jake (Tom Taylor) from New York -- that is, New York on Earth as we know it. (Our reality is called "Keystone Earth" by the inhabitants of Mid-World, where Walter is gathering gifted children for the purpose of channeling their souls into a super-weapon.)

Jake is twitchy, anxious, and obsessed with intense dreams about -- you guessed it -- a gunslinger, a towering edifice a man in black, and a gaggle of innocent children being strapped down in torture chambers so that their life energy can be converted into a laser beam that's used to assail the Dark Tower. Jake is convinced that the recent spate of unexplained earthquakes around the world are connected to the events he glimpses in his dreams; his parents figure he's just nuts, and arrange for him to be hauled off to a facility for troubled teens. Cue the slightly off-kilter psychiatrist and her burly helper, whom Jake recognizes as inhuman agents of the Man in Black.

One thing leads to another, and in short order, Jake ends up in Mid-World, where he makes Roland's acquaintance. (It's a short but productive courtship that consists of Roland dancing the kid over a cliff and assuming him of spying for Walter.) The two join forces, then bounce between realities, facing off with Walter and his demonic goons in a series of action sequences that are pretty much what you'd expect from this genre of film.

Those familiar with King's oeuvre will be rewarded with various call-outs to the writer's canon of work beyond "The Dark Tower." Fans of that particular series, too, will find plenty to gratify them, since the film is designed to be of a piece with the novels. Those who come in not knowing a thing about King's books won't feel left out, though; the story is easily followed, and the stakes -- existence itself -- are sufficiently compelling.

All of which is to say, we get what's going on in this movie because it's fairly formulaic. Roland and Jake form a mentor/mentee relationship that's as old as the boy's own adventure genre. (It's not just Roland's guns that result from melting down the Arthurian legend, along with "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars.") Walter, meantime, is the classic sociopath, his conduct and appearance a blend of the silky and sadistic; he's an inexplicable sociopath, intent on universal destruction for its own sake.

If there's a rationale behind Walter's hunger for the End Times, it's rooted in fatalism; as Walter points out to Roland, the universe is temporary anyway, so why fight the inevitable? Like many a classic bad guy, Walter seems bent on self-destruction not eh grandest scale, and he's voluptuously reckless in wickedness along the way as if figuring that the downhill slide of existence toward eventual chaos and oblivion is an invitation for moral viciousness. Killing casually, and on command -- "Stop breathing" is his favorite instruction to those he dispatches -- Walter spreads spiritual rot in his path with nothing more than an offhand word. "Hate," he tells a little girl happily chatting with her mother, and the girl's eyes glaze over in soul-devouring blackness. Bundle the entire alt-right movement into one man-shaped package, spray on a thin layer of flesh-colored plastic, and Walter is what you'd get.

That same smooth and prefab feeling characterizes not just the villain, but also the hero and, for that matter, the whole movie. Everyone here is simply going through their predestined movements: The bad guy's gotta bad; the good guy's gotta good; the twitchy kid whose psychic "shine" provides the key to breaking the endless stalemate between Walter and Roland, well, he has gotta twitch. There's plenty of filmmaking expertise on display here, but not a drop of inspiration. Nor is there any sense of storytelling magic, not even in Mid-World, a place where magic (or "magicks," as Walter has it) is commonplace. The film's best parts take place on Keystone Earth, in our own New York City, with gags that celebrate Roland's fish-out-of-water status. It used to be the case we'd go to the movies to be transported someplace special; the reverse is true here, with otherworldly people (and other entities) being imported to our own reality, to fight a war the rationale for which is located someplace else. They lose their own shine along the way.

In other words, this is hardly the excursion to fantastical and enticing places one might hope it to be. "The Dark Tower" feels like lukewarm, greasy takeout.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.