Let me begin by saying this: I am a huge fan of the Dark Tower series. That being said, I enjoyed the recent film while sitting in the theater for reasons that aren’t valid, entirely sentimental, completely personal to me. Looking at trending news, the film pulled in less than half its budget (19.5 million profit on a budget of 60 million) during opening weekend, and has been less than well-received by critics. That aside, I have some actual “story” issues with the film which I’ll address further down the page, but the bulk of this post will be spoiler-free. I will clarify when I’m about to spoil anything, so rest easy and avoid skipping ahead if you’d rather avoid ruining any of it for yourself.
While King’s epic storyline contains seven main books and a handful of shorter additions in the form of Marvel graphic novels and reference books, this film is attempting to condense enough of that information (settings, characters, worldbuilding, etc) into an hour and a half to pull off a story. Admirable in theory, but damn near impossible to do well. There is too much information to condense into such little time. There is an idea floating around the internet which would render this film a purely fan service endeavor, and while I’m not convinced by this idea I’ll still address that premise later. For anyone intending to go see this film, keep in mind that there is a whole new world you will be dropped in. Without giving examples or details here, try to imagine cutting any Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter film down to an hour and a half and attempting to explain the full extent of that world; it’s not easy. The film is forced to make every single scene count, with very little time to stop and enjoy the scenery. Does this make it feel rushed? Honestly: yes.
The main plot here is Roland Deschain of Eld, a “Gunslinger” (the Dark Tower’s equivalent of a Knight) is trying to chase down the dark sorcerer, Walter a.k.a. “The Man in Black”. Roland’s prowess will appeal to any fans of action films, and Walter’s “dark magicks” are a mix of extreme persuasion, incendiary heat/fire, and psychic abilities. The two are fighting a war of determination and will, one on the light side and one on the dark. While not a novel idea, it’s the way these characters interact that makes the story interesting.
Idris Elba is as close to the Roland I remember as anyone is going to get. The defeated old knight who no longer feels he deserves the honor he was once bestowed, marching on to find the evil sorcerer that only he has the power to defeat. Matthew McConaughey becomes The Man in Black for an hour and a half, embodying the constant taunting that Walter does throughout the series, using his “magicks” to force his way into Roland’s mind and make him relive past tragedies as if they were preventable if only he were stronger. The beauty of these characters is that Roland’s will is pure-good and constantly tested by the guilt that maybe he could’ve been strong enough to save those he loved, while The Man in Black is not simply a villain in the usual conflict sense, but also gives an insecurity and anxiety to a character we would otherwise not expect to deal with such traits. While I won’t speak of events here in order to not ruin anything, the narrative progresses at a pace that feels slightly quick without leaving major plot holes. Sitting in the theater, people seemed wowed by the action, but underwhelmed by the multitude of easter-eggs that fans will recognize. The film is going to suffer from having a divide of those who know too much about and those who are just finding the series. If I had to assume the perspective of someone who didn’t know the series at all, I’d likely give it a 6/10, and this only because Elba’s and McConaughey’s performances mesh as well as they do.
As a fan, I had a very different experience. I squealed in my seat with the excitement of finally seeing the Gunslinger come to life on-screen, The Man in Black and all his dark magicks at work, and being in the world of The Dark Tower. My problem was after the film, when I looked back and realized we have to take this snippet of the immense lore and enjoy it, resigning to the same problem most book-to-film translations have. In condensing what took months to read into a single evening’s time, you’ll be losing a lot of material in order to make sense of it for a larger crowd, and satiate very few of the original fans in the process. Sometimes this can be done well, like Marvel’s single-hero titles. Other times, like in Marvel’s team-up films, the action serves to distract you from the fact that the story isn’t giving you all the details it should or could. I’d like to believe this isn’t the latter of the two, but in retrospect, I feel that it is. That being said, let’s dive into the non-spoiler free stuff.
SPOILERS AHEAD. SPOILERS AHEAD. SPOILERS AHEAD. SPOILERS AHEAD.
An article on Looper by Claire Williams addresses the premise that Roland has the Horn of Eld this time around, meaning this film takes place after the events of the book series. I’ll refresh the memory of anyone who hasn’t picked it up since the mid 00’s when the “final” book was released since I had to do so myself before seeing the film. Near the end of Book 7, The Dark Tower, Roland arrives at the Tower and cannot free Gan/God because he doesn’t have the Horn of Eld. He is then returned to the beginning of his journey without complete recollection that he had been to the Tower (something it is hinted at that he has done before, as many as 18 times) this time with the Horn of Eld and a voice in his head singing the sweet promise:
“maybe this time will be different.”
Roland then sets out again on his journey (potentially the 19th attempt). Williams does a great job noting each little intricacy and poses her own theory, but let’s focus on the horn for now. A difficult task, considering it’s never shown in the film. I’d have no issue with this if it was just speculation on Williams’ part, but Stephen King posted a teaser image described over a year ago in May of 2016 on his Twitter, as you can see here:
Also referenced is “The Crimson King”, which despite multiple sightings of “All Hail the Crimson King” and the “eyes” showing up on Jake’s wall, also makes no appearance. Instead, the film revolves around Roland’s grudge against The Man in Black. This is a Game of Thrones movie with Ramsay Snow/Bolton as the main villain. Again, not an issue if only we weren’t told this wouldn’t be the case. In the cannon, The Man in Black isn’t our main antagonist. While we do end on a note of Roland inviting Jake along on his adventures, it is not stated if this is simply to accompany him back to Mid-world or to head for The Tower and finish what has begun. Worse, while we see these Crimson King hints everywhere, we know nothing of him and have no word on a sequel. If the box office is any influence on this decision (as it usually is for series projects outside printed media) we likely won’t get a sequel, nor does the ending tease/warrant one.
The Jake we get in this film is the same Jake that would’ve died in the mines. Roland and Jake should be running across the Mohaine desert to find him. Instead, Walter has some strange mechanism configured to use children’s minds as ammunition to topple the tower and allow demons into our universe. This very loosely addresses the story as it was in the series, where it is The Crimson King who wishes to restore Chaos to the order which Gan has brought to creation, where the Man in Black doesn’t even live to the end, where Eddie and Susannah Dean live with Jake in NYC, etc. I could go on about the differences. The issue here is we were told this is cannon and it shouldn’t be. I can understand the play at work to get fans of the series roped in, but with 90 minutes on your plate, this is a little less “Book 1” and a little more cashing in on an idea.
SPOILERS OVER. RETURNING TO NO-SPOILERS MODE
Now while this review may have some negative views of the film to it, I want to reiterate that I DID ENJOY the film. I do recommend anyone to go see it at a local non-chain movie theater and enjoy it themselves. It may not be the summers action blockbuster but it was an entertaining ride and it was fantastic to see Idris Elba firing off some of the most epic gun play I’ve seen in a while. The film tugs at all the right strings and while a bit scary at times, should definitely serve as a good jump-on point for younger viewers looking to be intrigued, or anyone that hasn’t yet taken a trip through Gilead and felt a bit curious what happens when a world has moved on. As an entry way for the series, this would’ve made me pick up Book 1 the next day and dive right in, and it definitely made me want to revisit Gilead. If that was King and the production crew’s intention, mission accomplished.
Idris Elba is said to be in a TV series next year which runs more in line with the books, and that I genuinely look forward to. His time as Roland here was worth the watch, as was Matthew McConaughey in his role as The Man in Black. The Jake Chambers we see here will do Jake of NY justice if he’s allowed to continue on the series as well. By that time, most new readers will likely just be finishing off Book “7” (King recently published a “Book 4.5”). For now, all we can do is wait, ya kennit?