‘The Dark Tower’ Review: A Fun, But Sometimes Baffling Adaptation

Check out our review of The Dark Tower, Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation of Stephen King's book series, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.

The Dark Tower Idris Elba

A boy from New York City, Jake (Tom Taylor), is transported to another world where he meets the last remaining gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), who is on a quest for revenge against an evil sorcerer, The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), whom he hopes to kill before he can destroy The Dark Tower — the central point of the entire universe that holds all worlds together.

As I’m sure many Stephen King fans already know, while so many of his written works have been adapted into movies or TV shows, The Dark Tower series of novels have undergone a long, long road to make it to the big screen. The first book in the series, entitled The Gunslinger, was published in 1982, but now, 35 years later, director Nikolaj Arcel has finally managed to give us a feature film version of The Dark Tower. So, was it worth the incredibly long wait?

Before I get started, I feel it’s relevant to note that I have only read the first two books in The Dark Tower series. At the end of the day, I can only review this film through my own experience with the material. I wanted to try to be as knowledgable about the property as possible, but in hindsight, I’m not sure this was the right decision on my part. The particularly interesting thing about this film is that it is actually a sequel to the books and is canon to the events of the series, but to explain any further would lead into spoiler territory, for the books, at least. I’m not entirely sure that was a great idea though. What director Nikolaj Arcel wanted to do with this film is to use it to introduce the story and the world of The Dark Tower to a wider audience. So, for the most part, that is the criteria for which I must judge the movie on.

First things first, I want to touch on the characters themselves, which I felt was one of The Dark Tower‘s strengths. From what I’ve read of the series, I thought the film did a remarkable job of bringing the novels’ characters to life. Idris Elba is a fantastic choice for the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain. It might not be what some readers pictured while reading the books, but Elba truly is wonderful in the role. I’m such a big fan of his, I’d watch him play my grandmother. Seeing him as the lead in a film like this was exciting and it’s something that doesn’t happen nearly enough for my liking.

Tom Taylor also did an excellent job as the boy, Jake Chambers, a character who plays a large role in the books. To me, it felt like this movie was more his story than Roland’s, but that worked for me. We’re seeing things through his eyes because he’s the character that is easiest to relate to, which aides in achieving the filmmakers’ goal of introducing the franchise to a wider audience. I thought Taylor was very charming as Jake and he had a great chemisty with Elba. The two of them being from such vastly different worlds leads to a lot of the film’s humor.

I always love these types of fish out of water stories, where a strange visitor from another place or time visits the world as we all know it (Star Trek IV, Thor, etc.) and when this duo return to Jake’s world, our world, it was some of my favorite stuff in the movie. Also, oddly enough, it was these parts of the film that felt truest to the source material (especially aspects of the second book, The Drawing of the Three, which is where Roland starts to interact with our world more), because the Mid-World stuff just didn’t feel like it did in the books for me. While Jake has a lot of the humorous moments, Roland has the absolute best line in the film. I was still laughing several minutes later because I just couldn’t get over how perfect the moment was (they’re on a bus when he says it, so look out for that).

The final major character in The Dark Tower is its villain. I thought Matthew McConaughey did a fine job as The Man in Black. He struck all the right notes for me. He was charming and funny when he needed to be, but when he needed to be creepy or sinister, he could just as easily slip right into it. He’s such an interesting counterpoint to Elba’s stoic Gunslinger. Out of the three main characters, though, how The Man in Black was used and his role in the story was the one that I was most on the fence about, but it was really just McConaughey’s performance that sold me on the character more so than the writing in this case.

The casting across the board is pretty solid, even in some of the comparatively minor roles. Katheryn Winnick was great as Jake’s mother, Laurie. Dennis Haysbert was a fantastic choice to play Roland’s father, as small of a role as it is. I really liked Claudia Kim as the seer, Arra. It was also great seeing people like Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), José Zúñiga (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) in the film. Also, as a huge Joss Whedon fan, it was nice to see Fran Kranz, who appeared in both Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods (a movie I adore!), have a decent role in the film. I love that guy. I do wish they would have done a little more with him, though.

The story of the film is probably the most lacking. While I thought the decision to make the film a sequel to the books was actually a pretty bold decision, I probably would have preferred a straightforward adaptation. With my knowledge of the first two books, it actually made things a bit more confusing for me. From my experience, the first two books employ a nice blend of the fantasy and western genres, with a decent sprinkling of horror as well, as Stephen King does best. However, the film also has a large amount of science-fiction in it. While this didn’t feel as authentic to what I’ve read, upon doing some further research, I found that a lot of these elements, which seemed really strange and out of place to me at first, might have been inspired by things in the later books. In fact, I found that a lot of people, places and things in the film were plucked from here and there from throughout the series as a whole. However, as I said before, I can only review this film through my own eyes, and the sci-fi stuff just didn’t really work for me, regardless of whether or not they were taken from the books. I think the best way to enjoy this film would either be to not read any of King’s novels beforehand or read them all. Anything in between, and you might be as lost as I was.

I thought that Nikolaj Arcel did a fine job directing the film. The world of Mid-World didn’t look quite look as I had imagined it while reading the books, but that is a common thing for adaptations of this sort. It didn’t look bad, it was just different than what I expected. There is also a Marvel Comics adaptation of the series, so I think a bit of my judgement comes from how the artwork of those comics depicted the world. The film’s version just wasn’t as visually interesting. At the end of the day, though, it’s always about the characters first for me, and I think Arcel succeeded in breathing life into the ones that are featured in the film in a way that respected what was on the page. At least that part of it rang true. There’s also a few nods to some of King’s other works in the film which was cool.

The shootout sequences were fantastic. We’ve seen guys who are supposed to be good with guns in hundreds of films, so I found it interesting that one of the ways the filmmaker decided to depict this on screen was not as much about how good he shoots, though he is good, but the style and grace with which he reloads. For a gunslinger who wields two six-shooters, I thought this was a cool idea. The effects were also solid, especially considering the film’s budget, though I could have done without the beam of light shooting up into the sky thing that we’re seeing in way too many films these days.

Something I quite enjoyed about the film was that it’s a breezy 95-minutes. Not every film warrants a 2 1/2 hour runtime (I’m looking at you, Transformers!), which is honestly what I would have expected in this case, so I found it incredibly refreshing that this film didn’t go that route. It tells the story it set out to tell and doesn’t waste any time in the process. Some viewers may have expected something a little more grand or epic, but I enjoyed that it was something a bit more character-driven than most blockbusters.

The runtime also sort of leads right into another thing that I thought was a smart decision on the part of the studio and filmmakers: the budget. So many studios these days spend $100-$200 million on these potential franchise starters and we’re always hearing about their plans for a 3 or 4 or 6 film series (**cough**cough** Power Rangers!). The budget for this film was $66 million. Plus, while most studios are promoting their films six months, nine months, sometimes even a year or two in advance of the film’s release date, we didn’t get the first trailer for The Dark Tower until May, three months before the film’s release. This is just another sign that Sony is not being frivolous with the ol’ checkbook. Finally, an instance where the studio is not dumping boatloads of cash on a film, expecting it to be the next big franchise because that’s what they’re paying for it to be. It’s nice to see a movie actually have to earn it first before we start talking sequels. Now, that’s still the goal, of course, and Arcel has even spoken about what he would do if given the opportunity to make a sequel, but at the very least, the studio is taking the wait and see approach with this one. I feel like that’s the best way to play it with these sort of things, and I’m really hopeful that this film does work out for them and we get to see another, especially since it would bring in characters who play a larger role in later books. With a budget so low and marketing costs being kept in check, I think The Dark Tower might actually stand a chance to turn a profit, so perhaps we may see a sequel. If not, hopefully the proposed TV series might be the next best thing.

As a whole, I enjoyed The Dark Tower, in spite of its flaws, and I even had a lot of fun with it at times. This is mostly due to the cast and characters, as well as the fish out of water elements that I loved from the books. However, at the end of the day, I just wanted to see a bit more of the Gunslinger’s world as I knew it from the novels. If you’re already a fan of the books, you may be more into this film than most, but it’s hard to say for certain without reading the entire run. If you haven’t read them yet, maybe give the film a shot first just to get a small taste of what Stephen King’s imagination has in store for you and then perhaps you’ll be so inclined to dive into the books for a more well-rounded journey into Mid-World.

Score: 7/10