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'The Dark Tower' stands strong

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Stephen King’s epic series finally hits the big screen

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Those are the words that begin Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger,” the first book in his beloved “Dark Tower” series. This story of Roland the gunslinger, his black-clad enemy and their clash over the fate of the titular tower has become what King himself refers to as his magnum opus, a massive masterpiece of fantastic fiction.

For years, filmmakers of all stripes searched for a way to bring this saga to the screen. The project languished through periods of stalled development. Obstacles presented themselves all along the way.

And now, a cinematic Dark Tower has arisen.

There’s a flexibility to the adaptation that you don’t always see; the narrative in this film version of “The Dark Tower” is drawn from numerous places in the series, creating something compelling and familiar while also standing separate enough to avoid alienating newcomers to the story.

But make no mistake – “The Dark Tower” tells an engaging tale of the Dark Tower.

Roland Deschain (Idris Elba, “Star Trek Beyond”) is a gunslinger, the last of his kind. He’s a kind of knight amidst the ruins of a world forever changed by a largely-forgotten cataclysm, sworn to protect the Dark Tower, a mystical hub that holds back the evil forces outside the multiverse that seek to invade and destroy.

Standing against Roland is a mysterious man in black (Matthew McConaughey, “Gold”), a powerful magician responsible for both an unceasing assault on the Tower – an assault powered largely by the exploitation of the abilities of psychically-gifted children - and the deaths of those closest to Roland.

Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor, TV’s “Doctor Foster”) is a young man living in New York City. Jake is haunted by dreams – terrifying visions that haunt his waking hours. But his dreams are real, offering him glimpses into the next world. Mid-World – the world of Roland and the man in black.

Jake’s ability to see – his shine – leads him toward the objects of his visions. And before long, he has become a key player in the good-and-evil showdown taking place between these two mortal enemies. The journey moves from our world to theirs and back again – and the fates of both rest on the outcome of this fight.

“The Dark Tower” has taken a different approach to adaptation than many films. The sprawling nature of King’s novels means that building an A-to-B-to-C recreation of the story was going to be tough to deal with cinematically. Instead, director Nikolaj Arcel and his crew have pulled narrative threads from different points in the grander tale and brought them together. For the most part, it works; there are a couple of moments where you can kind of see the seams, but otherwise, it fits together well, with a fittingly bleak visual aesthetic, a judicious use of effects, a few moments of unexpected humor and some fun-to-watch action sequences.

(Also worth noting: there are a TON of King-related Easter eggs – some overt, others subtle - scattered throughout the film. It’s certainly appropriate; “The Dark Tower” has permeated much of the King canon to varying degrees. It’s delightful to see that particular script flipped.)

Not that you need me to tell you, but Idris Elba is awesome in this movie. He’s got a wonderful growling, scowling take on the character that also leaves room for moments of pathos and vulnerability. Plus he’s incredible in the fight scenes and looks magnificent in a leather duster. He embodies the gunslinger with a charismatic magnetism from which it is nigh-impossible to look away.

McConaughey isn’t operating on quite the same level as Elba here, but he’s suitably sinister as the man in black. There’s an offhanded casualness to his performance that clicks with the character in a surprising way. He’s aloof and dismissive, accentuating the man’s sense of superiority. Taylor has kind of a thankless gig; he’s integral to the plot, but he’s also the audience surrogate. He fades a bit from time to time, but he mostly acquits himself well, as does the supporting cast.

All that being said, “The Dark Tower” has its share of flaws as well. The short runtime – just 94 minutes – doesn’t allow much room for deeper explanation, meaning that there are some questions that don’t necessarily receive answers (though resisting the trend toward runtime bloat is admirable). Those searching for a point-by-point visual representation of the book won’t find that here; the more inflexible fans may take umbrage to some of the liberties taken. Focusing the storytelling through Jake results in a degree of remove from the immediacy of the central conflict.

Overall, “The Dark Tower” doesn’t quite live up to the scale and majesty of its source material, but that was never going to be a fair bar to set considering the cinematic obstacles inherent to the narrative. Judged on its own, it’s an engaging film – it’s just one that is truer to the spirit of its inspiration rather than to the letter of it.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 03 August 2017 14:03


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