The Dark Tower: “cynical in the extreme and somewhat cobbled together”

Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey help turn Stephen King's cult fantasy novels into a big-screen extravaganza. But is it all a towering waste of time and talent?

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★★

“Have a great apocalypse,” Matthew McConaughey quips to an accomplice, as he prepares to unleash hell on Earth while dressed, distractingly, as a 1980s magician. It’s one of many moments that falls flat in this mishandled adaptation of Stephen King’s titular series of books, a film that serves both as an introduction to the author’s expansive vision and, bizarrely, as a sequel.

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Conceived as a marriage of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the eight-volume series is King’s self-described magnum opus, but those familiar with opening novel The Gunslinger will be scratching their heads at a film that bears scant resemblance to that book, either in events or atmosphere.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjwfqXTebIY

Long in development limbo (directors JJ Abrams and Ron Howard were attached at points, with Howard staying on as producer), The Dark Tower arrives under a cloud. Helmed by A Royal Affair’s Nikolaj Arcel, it’s apparent from the outset that this intended franchise opener has been re-imagined for a wider audience. And with Anders Thomas Jensen, Jeff Pinkner and Akiva Goldsman credited as screenwriters alongside Arcel, it’s a classic case of screenwriting by committee, so safe there’s little left to mark it out.

The resulting feature is a pick-and-mix of under-explored ideas taken from across the eight novels, with generic fantasy elements thrown in. Meanwhile, eschewing the creepier, more graphic content of the novels, its shift of protagonist and its bloodless action enables it to fit comfortably into the young adult bracket.

The first book spends its entirety in the head of jaded killer Roland (played here by Idris Elba), the eponymous gunslinger and the last of his kind, following him as he stalks his prey across post-apocalyptic landscapes and drip-feeding us disturbing details from his past. Tellingly, the film takes us in via Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled 11-year-old living in New York City. Jake is plagued by visions of another world and a man in black who goes by the name of Walter (McConaughey).

Walter is a sorcerer with a dastardly plan to destroy the tower that stands at the centre of the universe and wards off evil forces. He intends to do this by harnessing the psychic prowess of a suitably gifted child (no prizes for guessing who). Elba’s glum gunslinger has sworn to protect the tower but has become consumed by his desire for vengeance against Walter. When Jake stumbles upon a portal to Roland’s Mid-World home, the two team up.

The Dark Tower contains enough action to vaguely divert, while it generally spends its budget wisely. When Jake and Roland travel to New York, the fish-out-of-water comedy is a welcome respite from rote fantasy scenes, as tonally ridiculous as it is. Elba glowers suitably and softens convincingly, and Taylor is blandly credible. However, while McConaughey’s performance contains shades of his superlative work in transgressive indie Killer Joe, this is not a film inclined to get down and dirty with the dark side, and the actor quickly lapses into OTT self-parody, coming across as less sinister, more smug.

Cynical in the extreme and somewhat cobbled together, The Dark Tower is a missed opportunity that lacks the deft world-building of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring and the allegorical resonance of superior YA adaptations such as the Maze Runner or Hunger Games films. And, at a mere 95 minutes, it has no faith in its own ability to hold the interest, favouring flashy spectacle and relentless exposition over characterisation as it hastens to its depressingly open-ended denouement. Rather like the casing that falls from the gunslinger’s pistol, it has been stripped of impact and hits the ground as an empty shell.

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The Dark Tower is released in cinemas on Friday 18 August