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The road to The Dark Tower has been long, and not everyone will agree it was worth the wait. The film is already gaining poor buzz among critics, something that is surely worrying to Stephen King fans who’ve been waiting decades for a film version of their long-loved series.
And true, the critics have plenty of valid complaints. The Dark Tower should never have been an action tentpole, tightly confined to a 95-minute runtime. It’s a sprawling, interconnected saga (eight books!) mixing the genres of western, sci-fi and fantasy — and it’s much better suited as a prestige TV show (a series is in the works).
Yet, the film succeeds in a lot of ways that might not be initially apparent (and is better than its 19 percent Rotten Tomatoes score suggests). Its most notable success is how it puts King’s fingerprints throughout the movie, with the film peppering its breezy runtime with enough weird fun to make even its messiest parts worth the watch. The Dark Tower may be something of a mess, but it’s not a failure.
The movie eschews almost all exposition, a risky play that has been a hallmark of both classics (2001: A Space Odyssey) and bombs (David Lynch’s oddball Dune comes to mind).
It wisely skips over hard-to-explain plot devices and trusts the audience to understand the battle of good vs. evil and the existence of magic and gunslingers. By not getting bogged down in the sprawling backstory, the script enables the film to hop between its small-scale New York City setting (as child-sized in scope as its protagonist, Jake) and the sweeping, Terry Gilliam/Time Bandits-style aesthetic found in the world of Roland the Gunslinger (Idris Elba). There’s also a third aesthetic, that of the mysterious company Trans Corporation — a steam-punk-inspired headquarters in which bad guy the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) orders around a group agents who aren’t shy about torturing and killing children.
If it sounds like a lot of strangeness right out of the gate, it is. While getting tossed in the deep end can be jarring, that’s part of what makes it so enjoyable. These are creative choices with a lot of moxie behind them.
The film also distils many of King’s pet philosophies and themes. The plot ditches some of the franchise’s epic qualities, instead concerning itself with the power of children, a King hallmark. One of the few parts of exposition comes at the top of the film, when simple text informs viewers that a Dark Tower stands at the center of the universe protecting everything, and it is said that the mind of a child can bring it down. Thus, The Man in Black is kidnapping kids to harness their power in an attempt to do that.
King, in many of his stories, uses childhood innocence to explain their closer relationship to the world of magic. His books approach this either by focusing on the kids themselves or having adults, usually fathers, looking back on their own memories or examining the lives of their children. And the kids almost always can see the truth, while the adults remain either ignorant of it or are killed by the otherworldly force. This force can be evil, like in the upcoming It. But in the case of Dark Tower‘s Jake (Tom Taylor), this force is good, with the young boy having a telepathic ability known as Shine (a nod to The Shining — and demonstrating yet another King hallmark: tying his works together).
And the references continue from there, not lingering but giving enough clues to entice fans. There are brief references to Excalibur, ancient structures in Roland’s world, and hidden demons. The speed with which we blaze by these components makes them equal parts absurd and flavorful.
Beyond King references, there’s also an unintentional nod to Thor, the Marvel Studios series in which Elba plays the blind warrior Heimdall. When Roland and Jake make their way to New York, Elba’s performance balances the proud stoic hero with an understated humor. If Elba had been cast in the lead role of Thor, his glowering gaze during the fish-out-of-water segments could’ve bested even the bullheaded enthusiasm of Chris Hemsworth, and made the film something other than a weaker installment of the Marvel movies. Here, leading The Dark Tower, Elba stabilizes the screen in a world of chaos. While McConaughey chews scenery, slinking through scenes like a man-sized oil slick and inflicting R-rated cruelties in a PG-13 movie, Elba stands tall and paternal.
It may not be the adaptation King fans had hoped for, but it’s an entry odd and entertaining enough that newcomers may want to explore the multiverse for themselves. “Keeping King close to its heart, it truly has not forgotten the face of its father.”
Stay tuned to Heat Vision for much more from The Dark Tower this weekend.
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