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“The Dark Tower” Seems to Confirm a Cinematic Stephen “Kingdom”

“Do the animals still talk in your world?” — Roland Deschain (Idris Elba).

I haven’t read any of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novels, of which I understand there are at least half a dozen. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read ANY Stephen King since The Stand, and that must have been the ’80s. I had no idea that some elements and characters from his various works either make appearances or are referenced in The Dark Tower series, seeming to combine most or many of his stories into a unified whole, a sort of Stephen “Kingdom,” if you will, a notion seemingly confirmed by the long-awaited film version of The Dark Tower. I hear that King even incorporates himself as a character into one of the novels. However, King fans tell me that director Nikolaj Arcel’s film is not an adaptation of one of King’s DT novels, but a sequel to them.

To me, that means The Dark Tower isn’t really a Stephen King movie, but is “based on characters created by.” I already felt kind of cheated before I even entered the theater.

Nevertheless, I went in really wanting to like the film because it seems to have a certain potentially iconic setup and accompanying imagery sufficient to make me forget about how preposterous it is that some sort of “Dark Tower” at the nexus of all realities somehow keeps all those dark forces we’re always hearing about at bay, imprisoned somewhere outside the multiverse. Naturally, there would be no story unless a miscreant like the “Man in Black” (Matthew McConaughey) decides he wants to destroy the Tower and unleash the evil beyond. I’m getting kind of tired of people wanting to free the ancient evil, which seems to be the plot of horror literature and movies from H.P. Lovecraft’s arcane 1920s and ’30s stories in the “Cthulhu Mythos” to 1984’s Ghostbusters to 2004’s Hellboy. Maybe it’s ultimately the only horror plot there is.

The imagery of McConaughey in black, devil or sorcerer or whatever he’s supposed to be, and co-star Idris Elba as Roland, the “gunslinger” who’s apparently a kind of Jedi Knight tasked with protecting multiple universes, is so powerful that the casting alone should have been enough to sell the movie. Elba and McConaughey are joined by Tim Taylor as Jake Chambers, a recurring character in King’s literary series. Jake is the psychic quarry pursued by the Man in Black as the only being in the multiverse powerful enough to destroy the Tower and open the dimension gate solely by the power of his Shine (was I supposed to say that?), or something. And what’s with the retro steampunk devices used by the Man in Black?

It’s not necessarily the confounding and confusing plot that undermines the film, nor even the nonstop references and allusions to other King stories, even the ones I don’t recognize. It’s the fact that I don’t buy any of the relationships. Roland and the Man in Black are supposed to have dueled for decades, maybe centuries, and yet two actors of the stature of Elba and McConaughey fail to convince me that they’ve met anywhere except maybe the craft services table. The youthful Taylor isn’t bad, but he too has little to no rapport with his co-stars. The Man in Black has demoniac minions who seem regularly to displease him, and we all know from watching other sorcerers in black, like Darth Vader, how that goes, but director Arcel fails to render the servants as individuals. The animators and directors of the Despicable Me films are much more successful at imbuing their little chucklebugs with personality. Almost alone in the cast, once child star Jackie Earle Haley elicits a little interest and sympathy.

Part of the problem is the length of the film itself, which, at barely over 90 minutes, seems far too brief a time to establish the relationships or give more than cursory explanations for the convoluted plot. Concurrent with the brevity problem is the budget, which, at a reported $66 million, seems fairly small and probably inadequate for the scope of a story that transcends dimensions and occurs on multiple worlds in multiple realities. At least I certainly can’t accuse The Dark Tower of being slow. Sometimes I even wish it would pause long enough to smell the charred flesh.

Yet I don’t know if I can completely diss a film that left me wishing I could have liked it, especially because I respect King’s oeuvre, as sparsely familiar with it as I am. I wonder, if I were to read some of the Dark Tower novels, if that would make me like the film better or less? Another of those cosmic questions we may never learn the answer to.

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