Reeling it in: ‘The Dark Tower’ tumbles on the screen

“The Dark Tower”

 

1 hour, 35 minutes

There was a time when sci-fi/fantasy/comic book adaptations were not the go to Hollywood studio tentpole, but rather the cast-off, low rent projects that no serious filmmaker or actor would have anything to do with. Those were the days when Roger Corman was trying to make a “Fantastic Four” movie and classics like “Blade Runner” were bombing at the box office. Back in the late seventies, early eighties, I could understand what happened with this week’s massively disappointing “The Dark Tower.” A studio, unwilling to spend money on a weirdo story from a horror author, rushing out a quickie project to make a few quick bucks. But this is 2017 - the time of “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games.” These are the days when a multi-book series from even unknown authors make producers go weak in the knees. Heck, they are in the middle of adapting the “Maze Runner” series, and those books were terrible. And “The Dark Tower” isn’t from some nobody. This is Stephen King, for goodness sakes. It’s bizarre.

In this review, I’m going to dispense with my normal reticence to share spoilers. The movie is terrible, and it’s difficult to talk about why that is, unless you know the whole story. So bear with me, and if you don’t want to know, I’d skip to the end. First, a little primer about what “The Dark Tower” is.

Early on in King’s career, he started toying with an epic story about a mythical wandering knight on a parallel world. The man was Roland, a gunslinger, and he was on a quest to prevent the destruction of the Dark Tower, a mystical structure that serves as the lynch pin for all the worlds that exist in the infinite multi-verse. King released a few short stories which were, in 1982, compiled into a short novel and published as “The Gunslinger.” It was good. Weird, but interesting. The book begins with the phrase, “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” Nice.

Several years later, King, now a big-time success, decided to go back to the series, and eventually published six more novels, culminating with “The Dark Tower” in 2004. By this time, the series had built up a huge fan-base, many of them devotees for years, all the way back to the original “Gunslinger,” which was printed in a limited capacity and not widely available. People started talking about a film version in 2004, and haven’t stopped.

The problem is, and the most devoted fans will admit this, the books are nearly unadaptable. They are, in a word, strange. And convoluted. That’s two words. And go seriously off the rails by the last one. That’s… well, that more words, but not nearly as many as King used by the time he was done with this massive series. The final book clocks in at 845 pages. But, long and strange are no longer the deal-killers they once were. HBO has made a mint off “Game of Thrones,” if that tells you anything.

About two years ago, a film adaptation of “The Dark Tower” started to seriously come together under the watchful eye of Ron Howard. His ambitious plan involved alternating films and television series for all seven books, which would have cost a lot, but would have kept him and the particular studios involved rich and busy for many years to come.

Unfortunately (I guess…) that plan didn’t come together and Sony, who understood very little about what they had or the rabid fan-base it carried, decided to, I don’t know, test the waters?

“The Dark Tower” that was released last weekend is not so much an adaptation, as an odd kind of sequel. To understand that, you have to know the end of the last book, something most people watch the movie haven’t done. The final book in the series ends with Roland failing to save the Dark Tower, but instead of the destruction of the universe, Roland awakes to find himself back in the desert at the beginning of “The Gunslinger.” The implication is that this quest is eternal, and ultimately personal. Roland is undergoing an ordeal over and over again, until he gets it right, which in his case means solving his personality problems and becoming a truly decent human being.

This ending, I suppose, seemed like a convenient loophole for the screenwriters to be able to sort of cram a bunch of different bits from all the books together and call it “Roland’s next adventure.” It’s a terrible idea, and it works about as well as you’d imagine.

The movie starts out OK, with a twilight-zone style community of psychic kids who are being used to “break” the tower. This is the only part of the movie that captures the strangeness, the bizarre quality of much of the books. It all quickly goes awry when you realize the story will focus on the teenage boy Jake instead of Roland the badass gunslinger. The writing is awful, but particularly egregious are the moments when characters spout needless explanations about what’s going on, as if the audience couldn’t keep up. Idris Elba, controversial casting considering King modeled his Gunslinger after Clint Eastwood, does his best in the lead role, but everything is too spare and given no real set-up for him to ever get into the character.

Matthew McConaughy as the man in black, aka Walter, suffers a similar fate, relegating his portrayal to bargain basement evil, with no room for subtlety or nuance. I believe these two could have done well had this project been truly supported, but this shows all the signs of a film with both hands tied behind it’s back.

Ultimately, the entire thing comes down to a gunfight between Roland and Walter wherein you can feel the screenwriters just give up. Abruptly Roland gets off a magic ricochet shot, killing Walter, blowing up his tower-busting machine, and saving the day all in the space of a few minutes. This is all it takes to kill Walter, this eternal enemy? No one ever tried to shoot him before?

The movie clocks in at just over ninety minutes. Most Adam Sandler movies are longer than that. You can understand why fans are angry. The movie is a huge flop, and the studio is scrambling, though I don’t know why anyone is surprised. There’s talk of an eventual television adaptation, but who knows? Maybe this is a project best left on the page. Grade: D

“The Dark Tower” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and adult themes.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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