By Joe Shelton
In a Year of Stephen King adaptations, “The Dark Tower” Disappoints
As the many-headed serpent that is Hollywood casts around in the shallows for something to make us buy, it will more often than not present us with something we’ve already seen before, something familiar. And nowadays there’s nothing so comfortably familiar as Stephen King, that venerable great uncle of American letters who thrilled and entertained us with stories of rabid dogs, murderous parents, and crazed fans. And this sure seems to be his year, with the record-breaking adaptation of “It”, now the most successful King adaptation ever made, a very good adaptation of “Gerald’s Game” and a decent one of “1922” on Netflix, and a new anthology television show in the works with “Castle Rock”.
With all of those conspicuous successes, it is easy to forget that one of his worst adaptations has also come out this year: the long-awaited and tremendously disappointing “The Dark Tower.”
Based on the several-thousand-page series of the same name, The Dark Tower is epic fantasy by way of spaghetti Western, with a little itty-bit of horror thrown in as well. Idris Elba plays Roland the Gunslinger, a knight errant figure who shoots people with old-fashioned six-shooters and pontificates at length about the mystical nature of his weapons, saying that a warrior should “kill with his heart”, not his hand, and that aiming with your eyes rather than your heart means you’ve “forgotten the name of your father”. Roland is engaged in some sort of never-ending cosmic battle with his black-clad evil counterpart, Randall Flagg, AKA the Man in Black. Along the way he befriends the obligatory mop-headed youth, who sees in him the ultra-violent mass-murdering father figure he never had, but apparently always wanted. They battle a giant haunted house, travel from dimension to dimension, and try to protect the titular Tower, which functions like a giant pin keeping all the layers of reality together.
If that description makes it sound like a hallucinatory epic, it’s not so. In fact, the movie is disappointingly staid in its approach to King’s particularly loony story. Perhaps the sequel (unlikely now as the film bombed spectacularly) would have had a little more fun with the subject matter, but director Nikolaj Arcel attends to it with all the brio of a car commercial.
In other words, it feels as familiar as it does incoherent. Even if you’ve read the books, it feels almost impossible to get invested in The Dark Tower, because it ought to be more something. More bloody maybe, or more funny – more scary would have been nice – but unfortunately, it’s no more than it is: commonplace even where it’s weird.
Either everything old is new again, or everything new is old again. Or perhaps there’s a third option: nothing old was never new in the first place.