In defense of The Dark Tower 

The majority of critics agree that the long awaited adaptation of Stephen King's beloved series The Dark Tower is a dumb, murky mess of a film, but what this review presupposes is ... maybe it isn't?

Here are the basics: Beyond Earth, there exist many other worlds that access each other through a series of portals. A dark tower stands at the center of everything, but perilously. Mischievous, malevolent forces are all the time trying to topple the tower, which would unleash a world of demons and hellfire that have thus far stayed contained on the outskirts of the universe. When the tower suffers an attack, it causes a series of corresponding quakes on Earth, unexplainable by our precious plate tectonics theory (and excuuuse me for thinking that's neat).

Matthew McConaughey plays a madman named Walter, a.k.a. "The Man in Black." Likely a nerd in high school, Walter overcompensates with tremendous magical powers that he uses to make people effortlessly bend to his will. For example, he says, "Stop breathing," and the person drops dead on the spot (but shouldn't it take a minute or two for them to die? I feel like the command should be "snap neck" or "explode heart"). Only Roland is impervious, the last known gunslinger and Walter's nemesis, played with total dignity by Idris Elba. Walter compromises by killing everyone Roland ever walked with, and thus, a reluctant hero is born.

Meanwhile on Earth, we meet Jake (Tom Taylor), who is plagued by cinematic dreams of the whole dark tower drama. Jake insists his visions are real, draws everything he sees in excruciating detail and then lines the walls of his pre-teen New York City bedroom with the insane pictures. Of course his mother and stepdad think he's crazy, but Mom's a little more gentle with the delivery.

click to enlarge Idris Elba stars in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
  • Idris Elba stars in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

"These therapists are a waste of money," the evil stepfather opines, and herein lies a perfect example of what I assume people hate about this film, which is its painfully literal, expository dialogue. "I'm sworn to defend the tower," Roland says. "The tower will fall," Walter retorts, and so on. We see a thing happen on screen and then a character further explains the action in the context of the larger story, dutifully. It's stupid, but consider the tradeoff. This could have been a three-hour-long slogfest through impenetrable details in an attempt to satisfy fans of the series, and I'm pretty sure everyone would still hate it. Instead, The Dark Tower's rich cosmology has been condensed into a palatable, archetypal story of good versus evil with laughably bad dialogue to see us through in a merciful 95 minutes.

Chief among the film's strengths are McConaughey and Elba, who embody their roles with gusto. And the movie's brief moments of comedy totally worked on me. For example, when the gunslinger travels to New York in tailored, old-timey clothes and a preternatural ability to heal his wounds, oh boy, he's a real fish out of water. A couple of girls flirt with Roland and Jake on the bus, and Roland icily, hilariously says to them, "You have forgotten the faces of your father."

At a critical arc in the story, a heartbreaking thing happens on Earth that brings Roland and Jake together in an entirely earned moment of solidarity and love. At this turn, our reluctant hero has remembered the face of his father and now the two are united in a struggle in which the entire fate of humanity hangs in the balance. The Dark Tower unpacks eight books for the price of one movie ticket and still, the bellyaching. Such rude unthankfulness!

The Dark Tower continues at Missoula AMC 12.

This article was updated Aug. 10 to correct the name of the protagonist to Jake.

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