Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Dammit. Just…ugh, damn it all to Hell. I know I’ve discussed the concept of disappointment on this website, quite recently in fact, but it never gets easier. While there are times where I have good fun in making fun of a complete disaster of a film, I take no pleasure in criticizing promising ideas that fail on almost every conceivable level, especially from people who you know have done much, MUCH better than this absolute hot mess. But no, instead they waste their talents on Stephen King’s decades-spawning pet project that was stuck in development hell with the likes of JJ Abrams and Ron Howard attached to direct, only to have some unknown Danish director come in to be bullied by aggressive studio executives from…SONY?! The architects behind the worst animation of 2017? Oh God in Heaven, we’re screwed.
For the first third of our nearly 100 minute adventure (no seriously, let’s adapt portions of a seven book series and condense it to barely over feature length), we follow Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) experiencing visions of the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) ordering rat-men to strap a bunch of children to a device that launches lasers to a dark tower…and this isn’t discussed again for another thirty minutes. Instead, we deal with the fact that Jake is an outcast for experiencing these visions and no one believes them to be real but everyone does believe he’s having a psychotic breakdown from losing his father. Unfortunately his jackass stepfather puts him into the claws of the aforementioned rat people, forcing Jake to make a quick escape from our world into Mid-World, where he encounters another person from his visions, Roland the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) who is on his own personal quest for vengeance against the Man in Black. They embark on a journey across the wastelands of Mid-World to track down McConaughey-hey-hey’s character and stop him from his ultimate goal of destroying the Dark Tower that keeps all monsters out from multiple dimensions.
On paper, this is some prototypical fantasy genre fluff. Honestly, it’s really no different than any odd YA series that just so happens to have A-list actors in the lead roles. Except for some strange reason, the filmmakers of this film decided to ignore their high-quality talent in favor of following some kid who’s basically a goddamn Hat: no personality, no discernible goals, and no friggin’ character whatsoever. And granted, the way he’s written should have clued me in that I really shouldn’t have expected much from McConaughey and Elba when they inevitably show up but…oh man, were these two guys screwed over royal.
Neither of them are given any decent lines or characterizations, and unlike Dunkirk, the director of The Dark Tower doesn’t capitalize on their facial expressions or their bountiful charisma. Instead, the camera is far more interested in shoving in as many Stephen King Easter Eggs as it could. Seriously, if you’re a fan of King’s books and the various adaptations of his various works, you’re in for a reference-a-second spectacular. I caught in-jokes for It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Christine, Cujo, and Children of the Corn all over this film. Now these references do make sense in the context of the Dark Tower series: King intended the books to serve as a crossing point for his various works. In the books, the Man in Black’s character is an important figure in The Stand and makes a cameo in 11/22/63; while the nemesis of the spider from It is an important character in the books. Hell, Stephen King himself is a character in the final books of the series.
Given how much of a popular culture owes Stephen King, The Dark Tower is rife with possibilities to explore the nature of creator and creation, as well as being able to introduce villains and heroes from well known Stephen King books as important characters. But instead, this film adaptation strips this zany idea of crossover potential and relegates it to background humor as the film tortuously tries to tell Stephen King’s story with a straight face and without a hint of irony. This is actually a bad idea because the plot of these books is downright nonsensical. Crazy things just happen across the pages, usually at random. And perhaps King is able to make you buy it through his prose; but on film, it’s just a complete cluster. You need a screenwriter who can reign in the wackiness of this world and be able to find the humanity in its various characters, something Edgar Wright could pull off even on his worse days. But we have no Edgar Wright, we got a guy who was paid by the studio to shoot the cameras and a screenwriter who I now realize has caused me no end of pain for the past three years. No, I’m actually NOT exaggerating.
Writing this catastrophe comes to us via Akiva Goldsman…who the hell is he you might ask? Well, voices in my head, Akiva had a good streak over a decade ago with Cinderella Man and The Da Vinci Code, but ever since his directorial debut in the bizarrely atrocious Winter’s Tale, he has been on a never ending train of suck. He wrote the painfully generic The Divergent Series: Insurgent, then wrote the even more generic The 5th Wave, then he unleashed one of my worst of 2017 with Rings, chased it with the mediocre King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and arriving at his coup de grâce, Transformers: The Last Knight. Quite the resume of calamity, don’t you think? His main issue is that he doesn’t know how to write characters at all. He can attempt to organize decent plots and world-building, but it’s all hollow when none of your protagonists or antagonists are in the least bit interesting.
And thus you have Elba and McConaughey rely on characters they’ve played in the past to essentially create personalities for their blank slates. Thankfully, when the two are on screen, the film becomes halfway watchable. I mean, I even bought Elba’s whole recital of the Gunslinger’s Oath that is slightly more ridiculous than the Green Lantern Oath. But there’s not much of either of them that you haven’t already seen in the trailers. Most of Elba’s cool action stunts are spoiled wholesale by the marketing, leaving you with little to be surprised.
Honestly the biggest sin committed by The Dark Tower is that it’s boring as hell. The characters are flat and barely change over the story, the environments alternate between gunmetal gray and feces brown, the creature designs are both unintimidating and poorly rendered, and while some of the action looks cool, it can still achieve maximum silliness that doesn’t really impress. This film was an absolute letdown in every way, and yet I can’t be mad at the film.
I also can’t say that it’s truly horrible either. God knows I’ve experienced my fair share of failures this year, but this had a few bright spots thanks to the leads that saved it from oblivion. What’s even more criminal is that the film ends like the pilot to a television series, which is thankfully already greenlit with Frank Darabount as the showrunner. If he can somehow turn this ship around to make something interesting, I will be impressed because today, I’m giving this a very painfully low…