New Sci-Fi Thriller 'The Dark Tower' Represents a Case of Squandered Potential

Everything after the opening scene of The Dark Tower, a film about how its titular building holds the world together and keeps "darkness" at bay, is a convoluted mess.

click to enlarge New Sci-Fi Thriller 'The Dark Tower' Represents a Case of Squandered Potential
Photo via Slash Film

Theoretically, the film, which opened yesterday areawide, seems like a happy compromise between superhero flicks with increasingly long runtimes and, say, hour-long Disney movies. But skeptics who doubted the film’s four screenwriters' ability to condense eight books of material (penned by Stephen King) into a 90-minute runtime, without wringing the story of its substantial plot and characters, were right.

The film's opening sequence doesn't have the courtesy to explain exactly where, when or why the action is taking place, and the rest of The Dark Tower follows suit.

It opens on another planet, where kids are herded into a testing facility to help the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) bring down the all-important yet excruciatingly mysterious Dark Tower, as only an adolescent can do so.

Back in New York, troubled kid Jake (Tom Taylor) is plagued by nightmares of this other world and his firefighter father, who died years ago. He’s convinced that the Man in Black is real, as is the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), who's trying to hunt him down and protect the Tower. But despite the Carrie Mathison-esque vision wall in his room, his mom and stepdad aren’t buying it. They try to ship Jake off to a psychiatric institution, and he bolts, ultimately finding his way to the Gunslinger (aka Roland). The duo teams up to work through their tragic backstories and stop the Man in Black from annihilating the universe.

The film strives to be so many different things at once — a Western, a sci-fi epic, a superhero movie, etc. — that it loses sight of what’s crucial to make any of those of work: a solid storyline and strong characters. King provided this in his series, but the film is arrogant enough to disregard all of it and expect to become a sci-fi smash while taking shortcuts whenever possible. The “darkness” that will allegedly engulf the universe if the Man in Black wins is conveyed by a couple mild earthquakes and some suspect clouds, and more time is spent on cheap Roland-assimilating-to-Earth jokes than his (presumably more interesting) backstory.

Despite the film’s inherent clunkiness, a handful of scenes do work, and feel like teasers that give us a window into Dark Tower’s squandered potential. One of these, highlighted in the trailer, shows Roland rescuing Jake from one of the Man in Black’s accomplices by killing him from across a village; Roland recites the Gunslinger’s mantra, then sends a bullet through houses, a clothesline and some shrubbery before it lodges in Jake’s kidnapper.

But the couple of cool scenes The Dark Tower offers mean nothing; they’re few and far between, and you’ll probably be too distracted wondering what the hell is going on to enjoy them, anyway.

The cast isn’t the problem, and makes the most of what they have to work with. Elba is perhaps the film’s only redeeming quality, with vulnerability simmering just underneath his stoic Gunslinger, who ultimately, serves as a heartwarming father figure to Jake. McConaughey’s villain, donning a douchey deep V-neck, is less menacing as he is almost comical — but with virtually no background or motivation for the Man in Black, plus his completely arbitrary powers, it’s not really his fault.

The solution, it seems, would have simply been to increase the film's runtime with deeper character development and, more simply, just to explain a thing or two. But Dark Tower seems determined to pass itself off as a sci-fi thriller by connecting just enough dots from King's work to form a showy but barely coherent production. Did I mention that no characters ever actually visit the eponymous Dark Tower, and that we know nothing about it except that it's the glue holding the universe together?

The film will leave you pitying fans of King’s series, who will inevitably be let down, and hungry for a sequel — not necessarily to enjoy — to fill in all the gaping plot holes.

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