Stephen King's beloved novel series is brought to startling life with some remarkably great performances for a strangely fun, raw, and engaging film in The Dark Tower (2017). Although this film is getting savaged with negative reviews from critics, I cannot help but think they are looking beyond the mark here. This is a truly great Summer action blockbuster and a surprisingly emotional fantasy story wrapped up into a unique cinematic experience.
Hollywood does not make these kind of films everyday. I hear a lot of critics try to reductively call this film a cliched Y.A. (Young Adult) movie that is incomprehensible to follow. Currently The Dark Tower is hanging at an unbelievably low 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, and only has a slightly improved score of 34 on Metacritic. That is a gross exaggeration of this film's quality and does not reflect its level of entertainment value at all.
If anything, The Dark Tower exceeds any expectations I had for the film going into it. The trailers and marketing were not particularly riveting. But Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are such amazing actors and I was surprised when watching the film to see how thoroughly both these men threw themselves into their iconic roles as the Gunslinger (Elba) and the Man in Black (McConaughey).
Idris Elba's Roland Deschain is strong yet damaged man who was at one time a heroic Gunslinger who helped bring peace and order to the various realms of men, but who is so grief-stricken and alone now that he has become fixated on revenge. And Matthew McConnaughey's Walter Padick is a philosophically motivated dark sorcerer bent on lowering the defenses of humanity to allow a horde of demons to enter and destroy life as we know it.
The Dark Tower's greatest strength is in its perfect casting. Even the relatively small bit parts of the Man in Black's henchmen seem stacked to the max with talented actors, including Abby Lee, Fran Kranz, and Jackie Earle Hayley! And the child actor playing the young psychic Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is one of the most phenomenal young actors in the world today.
The production apparently put on one of the most extensive searches in history to cast this all-important role of Jake, and apparently Tom Taylor just blew them all away. And for good reason. Although the Dark Tower novels typically emphasize the Gunslinger Roland character as a central protagonist, at this point in the film Roland is a broken man who he is and has lost the vision of what he is doing with his life.
It takes young Jake to set Roland right and to help restore him back to being the honorable Gunslinger he used to be. Jake is aided in this journey because of his exceptional gifts with the shine, which we are informed are strong psychic powers.
Shine is referred to in other Stephen King works, but most notably in his novel The Shining (1977), which was adapted a few years later by Stanely Kubrick into the classic horror film of the same name. Twenty years later Stephen King adapted his novel again but for the small screen, and enlisted his friend and frequent collaborator Mick Garris in turning it into a TV miniseries version that more accurately reflected his intentions with the original story.
Jake Chambers's shine is so powerful that Jake has visions of things happening on other worlds and can see backwards in time. This power is something the Man in Black desires and will stop at nothing to find for his own nefarious purposes, wreaking havoc and chaos in his wake while on the hunt. Jake helps awaken the old Gunslinger spirit back in Roland, who begins training Jake in the ways of the Gunslinger, too.
Without spoiling the film, much of Roland Deschain and his path in the film is inspired by Arthurian legend and Excalibur is a literal thing that exists in this world, and it plays a significant part of the film. And to Idris Elba's credit, he is completely believable as the best Gunslinger in the world. He wields his weapons with a deftness and clarity of purpose that bleeds through every frame of film. Truly, rather than the pen, here it is the gun that is mightier than the sword.
When Stephen King was asked his opinion of the movie, he responded, "They’ve done a wonderful job here telling a story that’s coherent and that pulls a lot of the elements of the novel in The Dark Tower. Purists may not like it. I can’t tell about that for sure, because it doesn’t start where the book starts. But at the same time, they’ll fall right into it because they’ll know exactly what’s going on."
Thankfully for the purists, there are some grand plans in store to create a connected TV series prequel to the film starring Idris Elba as the Gunslinger on his adventures adapted more directly from the Stephen King source novels and exploring that vast fantasy story in all its glory.
But unfortunately, the poor marketing and horrible critical response to the movie seems to have dampened the opening box office in the U.S., which has cast some doubt as to its future as an ongoing TV series. Hopefully good word of mouth from us audience members can help many more people discover and experience this powerful fantasy film on the big screen for themselves.
While The Dark Tower is by no means a perfect film, I still feel a powerful sense of wonder and magic with this movie that is rare and precious to find: heart. The storytelling was admittedly rushed and the editing was frequently choppy and many of the side characters feel underutilized, but the idea of having much more time to explore these characters later in the series is a good consolation to that flaw.
I am confident that if the box office numbers do not explode from word of mouth to make The Dark Tower a hit in theaters, I have no doubt this film will quickly gain status as a cult classic and build up a steady following of fantasy fans over the years. The Dark Tower is simply too interesting to ignore forever. I think when most the movies getting 90% or higher this year on Rotten Tomatoes are long forgotten, this movie will still be entertaining families.
And the on screen paternal chemistry between Elba's Roland and Taylor's Jake is something I have rarely seen so beautifully executed before. There are performances and scenes throughout this film that brought me to tears and made me genuinely care about the characters and feel invested in the wildly fantastical elements of the story, too. The Dark Tower is a smart movie and time is on its side.