September 30, 2019
The Dark Tower (2017)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor

What it's about. A continuation of a series of "Dark Tower" novels by fantasy-horror author Stephen King. Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is a disturbed city teenager with recurring nightmares concerning the Dark Tower, the Man in Black, and the Gunslinger.

Cities across the world suffer increasingly devastating earthquakes, and Jake believes his dreams reveal the cause of the troubles that plague civilization. Chambers lives with his hottie mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), and her unpleasant boyfriend Lon (Nicholas Pauling).

Jake's erratic behavior leads Laurie to contact a teen psychiatric clinic. They send two staff members (Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean) to abduct Jake, but he flees to an abandoned house he remembers from dreams. The house turns out to be a portal into a fantasy world which Jake, of course, enters.

Jake promptly encounters the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a loner in the wilderness always in search of the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). The Gunslinger, whose gun and bullets have magical aspects, hopes to shoot the Man in Black, a supernatural and malicious wise guy.

The Man in Black is head honcho at a facility staffed by lizard people disguised as humans. The facility kidnaps human teenagers from Earth with "the shine", which is apparently an ability to see visions and project energy. The teens are forced to empower war weapons designed to damage the Dark Tower, a tall and narrow edifice that for some reason is key to preventing a holocaust of evil from engulfing all worlds, including Earth.

The Gunslinger and Jake become allies against the Man in Black, who is in search of Jake since his "shine" is strong. The Gunslinger takes Jake to a village where a hottie seer, Claudia Kim, can advise their actions.

How others will see it. The Dark Tower was much anticipated and opened with a box office bang of 20M in its first U.S. weekend. The film proved profitable for Columbia, but was generally panned by critics and was a disappointment for most fans of King's "Dark Tower" series of novels. The film received surprisingly minimal festival circuit recognition.

Today at, The Dark Tower has a respectable 114K user votes, confirming an interest in the premise if not the execution. But the user ratings are fairly low, ranging from 5.6 among men under age 45, to 6.2 among women over age 45.

The "most helpful" user reviews are predominantly negative. Many are familiar with the King novels and see the film as a loose adaptation stocked with sci-fi fantasy clichés, such as the all-powerful villain who must be stopped, the young hero, and his older mentor, reminiscent of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars (1977). We also have a lot of The Matrix here, and Dark City, and so many others.

If one scrolls past the many negative reviews, highly positive reviews begin to pop up, some of which are both cogent and lengthy. Some point out that the movie is a continuation, instead of an adaptation, of the "Dark Tower" novels.

How I felt about it. Although Idris Elba as the Gunslinger is the stocky, sullen Dwayne Johnson/Vin Diesel/Arnold Schwarzenegger type we are supposed to connect with, he is outperformed here by young Tom Taylor and the surprisingly sinister Matthew McConaughey. In all, this is a well directed, well cast, and well acted movie, an unusual combination for any genre.

The premise is cumbersome and somewhat hokey. You might as well give Elba a samurai sword instead of a magic gun, and it is never explained why the Dark Tower is so important to holding off the demons. It is a MacGuffin, like J.R.R. Tolkien's ring in the Hobbit novels, but surely a more interesting one could have been devised.

But MacGuffins are never important in and of themselves. What matters, instead, are the characters. And they are interesting, particularly wide-eyed Jake and McConaughey's laconic personification of evil.

It isn't clear why the Gunslinger is so powerful. Except that he must be, in order to have any chance of overcoming the Man in Black. One can certainly argue that The Dark Tower is a pastiche of innumerable predecessor sci-fi films. But it doesn't have to be original to be good. It just has to be well executed, and it is. The credit must belong to the writer-director, perennial Robert Festival nominee Nikolaj Arcel.