Almost twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Legends, which opened with ‘the Little Sisters of Eluria’ by Stephen King, set in the Dark Tower universe. Intrigued, I proceeded to buy the first novel of the Dark Tower series. This is not a review of that novel series however.
Last week I saw the 2017 movie based on the Dark Tower novels, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. A great story with two great actors, and produced by Ron Howard (Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind). That has to be good, right?
Once Upon a Time in the West
The movie poster, shown above, might lead you to suspect the movie was about Idris Elba’s or Matthew McConaughey’s character.
You’d be wrong.
The story is about a young man, Jake Chambers, who you may recognize from the novels. This is not the Jake Chambers you know from the novels, though. The Jake from the novels lived estranged from his two parents and was pushed in front of a bus, waking up in midworld. This Jake lives with his mother and foster-father — his real father died — in New York and is being driven insane by nightmares.
Jake has ‘the shine’, a psychic powers, and he has them stronger than any known person. He dreams of the Man in Black, Walter, played by Matthew McConaughey, who is attacking the Dark Tower by putting children in a machine that draws something from them and fires it at the tower. Jake also sees Roland the Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba, fighting against Walter and losing his father.
Jake decides to go looking for Roland.
Roland is a broken man bent only on revenge against Walter. Walter is in control of an empire spanning many worlds, but wants to take the Dark Tower to unleash darkness on all of them, so he can rule the universe with the help of demons.
Roland is the classic ‘hero who has given up’ and Walter is the classic ‘super evil villain who wants villainous things and kills his underlings for fun’. They’re gunning for a showdown, and –slight spoiler — the movie delivers at the climax.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The world of the Dark Tower is interesting, even if this version is a warped version of the one from the novels. Also, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are great actors, and they can bring something to even bad writing.
However, the story is just extremely bland. Nothing stands out as particularly memorable. The fight scenes are interesting, but not great. The bad guy is generically evil, the good guy boringly predictable. Even the settings are well-known post-apocalyptic ones.
Even that could have been forgiven if the main characters arc was really good. And that’s where it gets really ugly. The story is about Jake, but Jake has zero agency. He may officially be the main character, but he’s really just the damsel in distress for Roland to save. He’s a boring kid with an attitude but no courage, whose only positive trait is the unexplained windfall of him being a very strong psychic. He has no agency, and no arc.
At the climax of the story, they sort of shoehorned an act of defiance in there, which is supposedly the key climax for Roland as well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The result is a pretty boring story, with a climax that doesn’t feel cathartic at all.
For this post I did some research online, and I found out this story is supposedly a different cycle of Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower than in the books. Lore-wise that actually fits, but it doesn’t make this movie any better. Since this isn’t explained either, people like me — who have actually read the novels — feel even more left in the cold.
The Dark Tower isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just… boring. It’s been only a week since I saw it and already I can’t remember half of it. I just didn’t care. Which is kind of a feat, because I do remember parts of the novels which I read twenty years ago.
Maybe the television show that’s in the works will be better. We can hope at least, because the Dark Tower has a rich universe with many cool story possibilities. Somebody just has to do it justice, and not create a generic underwhelming action movie out of it.