I sometimes think that it would be honestly be a brilliant idea to hire someone within the editing, writing, and general film creation departments of the industry to simply ask, “why?” It’s a loaded question that demands thought and an answer and I think people and projects would benefit highly from it; it could result in less movies that don’t give us emotional payoff and more that actually engage and inspire us. So, with the question of “why” firmly planted on the tips of my fingers, I turn our attention to The Dark Tower.
Loosely based on the series by Stephen King, the film tells the story of Jake (Tom Taylor), a young boy with psychic powers that allow him to see into different worlds. What he sees is an evil sorcerer (Matthew McConaughey) using the power of children’s minds to bring down an almighty tower that sits at the centre of the universe, protecting its many worlds from the darkness and monsters that lurk beyond. Narrowly escaping a couple of ‘fake-skins’ who are after him for his psychic ability, Jake travels to another world where he meets Roland (Idris Elba), the last of a race of Dark Tower protectors called ‘gunslingers’, and the two band together to bring down the sorcerer and save the universe.
The question of why is this movie a thing is sensible enough: it’s a sci-fi fantasy romp with calculating heroes, creepy villains, and a strong child character that stands up against grownups and authority. From a filmic point of view, there is a lot here that writers, directors, technicians, and artists can have fun with. However, this film suffers strongly from a lack of conviction in its direction as well as a huge absence of emotional payoff.
I spent the entire duration of the movie waiting to feel something, anything. I got nothing. Having not read the series, but discussed the film with someone who has, I’ve discovered that this is a sort of mash-up of parts of the books to create a prequel/sequel type of mutant adaptation. Why? Picking out and stringing together the best bits of a story may have worked for The Princess Bride, but for this film it almost has the reverse effect. Nikolaj Arcel and his team of writers: “Well, Mister Why, these are the parts that will bring in a younger audience and make the story more accessible to them.” So, you’re pulling a ‘Frankenstein’ to make the movie more kid-friendly?
Having Jake as the film’s protagonist rather than Roland who is the hero of the books, changes the entire tone of the story. What is probably most upsetting is that he’s a character that we have seen before, over and over. The cooler characters of Roland and the Sorcerer, Walter, are shoved into the back seat and told to be quiet. The result: the only characters we’re given opportunity to develop attachments to are a clichéd child character and two men who are never properly introduced to us. Not a strong base for a relationship.
Where the movie does have some success is in its world building. The cues of the genre and the nonchalance with which everyone saunters throughout their worlds doesn’t cause us to question them and the ease with which people slip to and fro between worlds of mundane and magic reinforces that. It’s clever world-building through inactivity.
Sadly, it’s not enough. A lack of compelling characters married with an absence of any real suspense, character arc, or prolonged bouts of tension extinguishes any flicker of emotional attachment from the audience and makes the movie experience non-existent. If you buy a ticket to The Dark Tower, you are buying a ticket to sit in a dark room with other people and watch changing light patterns on a big screen. No excitement or emotional payoff included.