Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Brief thoughts on The Dark Tower.

I've often considered myself someone who respects Stephen King's stories more than I love them. While he's earned every accolade for crafting one of the most unique creative voices in literature, I often find the strengths - and weaknesses -  in his text are usually better accentuated by the interpretations of other writers, and with a bibliography as vast as his, has resulted in films among some of the greatest (The Shawshank Redemption) and some of the worst (Maximum Overdrive) of all time.

But I doubt any of them has had as rocky a road as The Dark Tower, based on King's popular long-running series, centered around the everlong battle between gunslinger Roland of Eld, and the devilish sorcerer the Man in Black. After several attempts spanning well over a decade, the final film makes it way to the screen under Nikolaj Arcel and Imagine Entertainment, and the first of two King adaptations this year (with the reimagining of IT to release next month). Sadly, I'm left wishing that The Dark Tower's bumpy production didn't show.

Upon reading the credits, it came as no surprise to me that it took a total of four writers to serve the final product as is, including Winter's Tale writer Akiva Goldsman, and director Arcel himself. Arcel is outspoken in his love of King's books, having used them as his means of learning English, so you'd think such passion would be able to translate to the screen. Unfortunately, The Dark Tower feels like anything but a director's showcase, closer to any other studio product that you can find in multiplexes right now.

What doesn't help is the movie's overloaded content in comparison to its lean running time of 95 minutes. Apparently intended to be a sequel to the book series, the entire movie feels incredibly alienating to all but those intensely familiar with the source material. The film is littered with relentless, non-stop exposition intended to catch the viewer up with the central conflicts and basic rules of the universe, each scene tireless as the bloated explaining and "as you know" moments come flying with breathless pace, establishing the lore of a vast universe of different worlds with different people and creatures, to the point that it becomes incomprehensible. That said, for as thick as the exposition comes flying, much of it ultimately feels superfluous to include, as the film constantly sidelines or outright abandons these threads with little warning, and whatever grand scope the film tries to achieve feels artificial and muted.

What little sense of personality or character that the film has is also not capitalized on, specifically lead character Jake, played by Tom Taylor. This is perhaps the most King-esque the film gets is in this character, a social outsider boy still reeling over the tragic and sudden death of his father, a target for bullies at school, and suffering from horrifying dreams that his regular therapist, and even his own mother, see as disturbed lashing out coming to grips with his repressed emotions. But that's all there really is to him are these surface value details, as he's never required or given any opportunity to confront these issues head-on, especially because he gets sidelined as the powerless sidekick once Roland enters the picture. Even as the film tries to build to greater unpleasant feelings and personal struggle, it's disappointing that instead of having him play a more direct role in the climactic segments of the film, he's relegated to MacGuffin who loses the focus that really should have gone to him.

And as I said before, this movie had four writers, so it all feels very erratic in that sense. It's bad enough when the movie is so bad at keeping track of the thick exposition, but it's even worse when the main conflict of the film, the arch rivalry between Roland and Walter, the Man in Black, doesn't hold the potency it should. Roland is this classic western gunslinger almost in the vein of The Man with No Name, a gruff, stoic, but also noble gunslinger bent on personal revenge against his enemy. Idris Elba is finally given a chance to play the main hero, and he certainly brings tremendous gravitas and commitment to the role, selling his intimidation as a master of firearms, and is practically carrying the movie at points. But even still, the material he's handed almost bests even him, undercut by the fact that Roland feels like a completely static character. He starts out as a gruff but noble gunslinger, he ends the film as a gruff but noble gunslinger with very little in the way of growth throughout, and you'd figure with how much time is devoted to exposition in this film, that they'd be able to better establish the bond he shares with Jake, but those moments of intimacy are few and far between.

But even worse off is his vengeful connection to Walter. For what it's worth, Matthew McConaughey is also better than this movie or character deserves. He initially looks to be a worthy villain, often cast in shadowy and intimidating light, bending the fabric of the world and controlling humans with his words, all while dressed in an all black suit with dyed hair (obviously meant to resemble Johnny Cash). What could have afforded McConaughey a chance to craft one of the great modern villains, is instead another static and unremarkable element to the film. Despite the central focus being on the duel between the hero and villain, the film fails to properly establish the connection between the two, given that McConaughey is frequently off on his own, either in his secret lair pulling the strings, or in the human world tracking the young Jake (whose mind can apparently bring down the titular tower, which stands to protect the universe from vicious otherworldly monsters). Elba and McConaughey are rarely, if ever given the chance to just share the same scene together, and with how talky this movie is, it wouldn't have killed the filmmakers to give them one face to face sequence to let the tension between the two simmer and give us better understanding.

Outside of a few fleeting glimpses, and little easter eggs spliced in, including the fact that Jake has this psychic ability called the Shine (just call it the "shinning" to go into full parody), this couldn't feel any less like a Stephen King inspired story. The singular quirk, personality, or touch of King feels drastically muted, suppressed by all the attempts to turn it into another flavor of the week blockbuster, to the point that it almost begins to more closely resemble one of those mid-2000's Marvel movies, which is not helped by the fact - I kid you not - that the movie features *another* variation of the death-beam-from-the-sky climax. And speaking of Marvel, given Sony's previous attempts to turn former properties into an expanded universe to combat Marvel (The Amazing Spider-Man and Ghostbusters), it should come as no surprise that they want to attempt to do the same with this film, given that the entire film plays out like an extended origin story leading into future. In spite of feeling like its own self-contained story, it still feels like the first in a series that will continue to expand on these character and this world, just without sequel-baiting and post-credit clips, explaining why the film is so lazy when it comes to building character, ending on an apathetic whimper leaving potential scorched in its path.

Still, at least it was mercifully short, and I appreciated that it didn't bother to tease sequels that will never happen. Even as someone who doesn't consider himself the greatest fan of King, even I have to admit his stories deserve better treatment than what this gave them. If not a disaster like Fantastic Four, it's still such a murky and relentlessly boring attempt at forging a new franchise, a failed product of those who have forgotten the faces of their fathers.

*1/2 / *****

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