By Preston Wilder
The Dark Tower stands at the centre of the universe, but “the mind of a child can bring it down” says an opening caption. The mind of a child is a useful weapon when it comes to a film like The Dark Tower, based on a series of books by Stephen King – kids are just better at bringing conviction to this kind of fairytale fantasy – and 15-year-old Tom Taylor is the MVP here, his watchful look and hunted green eyes carrying a compelling intensity. “You have to believe me!” pleads Jake (our hero), trying to convince his mum and stepdad that his drawings of a ‘Gunslinger’ and a ‘Man in Black’ aren’t just products of his grief and confusion over the death of his father.
Taylor is great; the adults don’t fare as well. Matthew McConaughey is the Man in Black (he’s real, it turns out, not just in Jake’s imagination, reigning over a dimension called the ‘Midworld’ as opposed to our own ‘Keystone Earth’), his face buffed and polished to the point of seeming Photoshopped. MiB is a sorcerer, able to control or destroy with a single command, though McConaughey doesn’t seem too invested; his evil wizard has a kind of flamboyant deadness that recalls Christopher Walken or, at a pinch, Donald Trump. Idris Elba is the Gunslinger, another hero with daddy issues who alas has “stopped believing”, consumed by a thirst for vengeance – and Elba brings a mildly soulful smoulder to this one-dimensional role, also getting to speak what is surely the line of the summer. It comes when a seer reads his innermost thoughts, then asks him to confirm that her reading is correct. “Only a goat would lie to a seer,” replies Idris, a puzzling answer – do goats lie more than other animals? – but one I’ll surely be using in real life whenever possible. ‘Is this your vehicle, sir?’ ‘Only a goat would lie to a seer.’
This is getting flippant, and it shouldn’t be flippant. The Dark Tower series (eight books, written mostly in the late 90s and early 00s, adding up to over 4000 pages) is a huge deal for Stephen King fans, variously described as their Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. This $60 million big-screen adaptation is intended as a cornerstone for a possible franchise: there’s talk of a companion TV series, and a line of Dark Tower comics already exists. It’s a grand and ambitious plan – but significantly hobbled by the movie itself, which is just a trifling kiddie fantasy in the style of The Neverending Story (indeed, Taylor looks a lot like an older version of Barret Oliver in Story). Whatever the books are like, it’s hard to imagine a neutral pining for more of this thinly-detailed Gunslinger and his youthful companion.
That said, it’s quite a pleasant movie, even if it falls between two stools (it’s been rated ‘15’ here, keeping out the tween audience who’d likely appreciate it most). The kid, as already mentioned, is an engaging hero, brave in the face of peril and wide-eyed as he learns about his ‘Shine’, or psychic powers (“Whoa… Her voice is in my head!”). The early scenes in New York – infiltrated by the Man in Black’s agents, whose faces are masks of human skin hiding their true faces – have a springy paranoia, and McConaughey gets a funny moment when the kid’s parents come home to find him raiding the fridge in their kitchen: “Where I come from, we don’t have chicken!”. Even the inevitable showdown is quite well-staged – bullets vs. shards of glass, with the portal gleaming in the background – though you have to wonder why MiB chooses to face the Gunslinger on the latter’s physical terms, when he has so much magic at his disposal.
This is yet another of those cases when it’s hard to know what to do with this film. Should we recommend, or not? It’s not soulless, like Transformers, but it doesn’t look as good either; some of the effects, like a scaly beast that attacks our heroes in Midworld, are decidedly ropey. Performances are flat, young Taylor excepted. The whole film is lame, albeit in a way that’s sometimes ingratiating. A much grander project was presumably intended, but should the failure to adapt King’s allegedly ‘unadaptable’ source be the end of it? Should I lie to the reader and claim that the – juvenile, unsurprising, mercifully short – result doesn’t have its own modest pleasures? Only a goat would lie to the reader.
THE DARK TOWER
DIRECTED BY Nikolaj Arcel
STARRING Tom Taylor, Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey
US 2017 95 mins