Review: The Dark Tower (cinema)

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I loved books 1–4 in this series as a teenager. When the final 3 at last came out I devoured them, though with a greater awareness of what I found disappointing or frustrating about them. Recently, I read the spin-off The Wind Through the Keyhole and enjoyed a whole lot of nostalgia for the world(s within worlds). And, oh my god, I was so excited when they announced the casting for this. But like everyone, my dread has been growing the closer we got to the release date because we’ve had little more than one trailer in terms of marketing. And because I didn’t want to read too deeply into rumours or details of what they might have changed, I went into this having only the barest sense that: this was sort-of a sequel to the books, it was a stand-alone film, and it was bafflingly awful to many people who’ve seen it.

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad (I thought I’d need to apologise to He Judges afterwards but he claims to have rather enjoyed it and now might read the books!). I’d still rather have the Netflix/Amazon/HBO series, that includes all the weird and wacky Arthurian-cowboy-post-industrial-radiation-hellscape details I know and love (lobstrosities! Deranged trains! Very lost Elton John-soundtracked priests! EPIC flashbacks!). But bits of this movie did genuinely get the feeling of the books, which is more than I’d expected in the end. And oh, I’m still thrilled about the casting. Idris Elba is the perfect Roland — solemn, takes himself a little too seriously, is bad at interacting with new things, but can convince you he does still have a heart under that gruff exterior — and tbh I never thought of Matthew McConaughy as an actor I wanted to see do more than one-note, inexplicably-wants-to-see-the-world-burn evil. And Tom Taylor as Jake did a good job holding it all together.

Having said that, I don’t think that telling the story from Jake’s perspective was necessarily the way to do this. The beginning dragged. There’s no easy way to explain Mid-Earth and its history, but a prologue from Roland’s perspective might have helped. Heck, lean in to the fact that this is a sequel to the books: how did he lose Jake before (again, and again, and again)? It’s never quite clear how much Roland and Walter remember their pasts, but given that it seems to be referenced later in the movie I’d have just gone for trusting your audience and showing it head-on, rather than leaving clues dangling that are only for the people who’ll see them coming. This applies to a lot in the movie. The Crimson King and Walter are essentially combined, but this is never explained: you know what ‘all hail the Crimson King’ means if you know. Same with the talking raccoons. My god, for a moment in the woods I really, truly let myself believe there was going to be a billy-bumbler. What can I say? I’m an eternal optimist.

But as much as there was a huge amount that just wasn’t explained, there were still enough changes that it was disorientating even when you have ploughed through all the books and all their ongoing retconning and layers. Walter’s evil plan involving children who have The Shine (just in case you forgot it was Stephen King guys!) never really worked for me. This might be because I have no recollection of the rat people (was that a thing in the books? ETA: ah yes, the Low Men, not one of the reasons I ever cared about the world or the story…), or because Topher from Cabin in the Woods was there being Topher, or because I was too busy going ‘THAT’S THE WIZARD’S RAINBOW!’ or because Roland seemed surprised to learn where Walter was even though the night before he’d watched the firey beam of children’s screams arc across the sky to the Tower… Adding this in as an element felt, well unnecessary, although I take it that in a stand-alone movie they wanted to show how Walter represented a more immediate threat to the Tower. Again, maybe address the story cycle directly: is this something that Walter learned of on their last go around the Wheel, and he’s now trying to bring his plan forward by exploiting a resource he’d not previously been aware of? It might have been a way of ensuring that your audience started off on even footing is all.

Other problems: no Susannah. Yeah, this is a problem. Pretty much every woman with a speaking role dies or is injured (except the lovely medical staff in NYC). And casting Idris Elba was initially hailed by lots of fans as a chance for the story to reassess some of the more problematic racial aspects the books hamfistedly addressed. But you can’t do that without Susannah. I like to think that the old bum who warns Jake is Eddie, so it would have been nice to even have a shout-out that referenced Susannah: they managed to fit enough other things in for the fans (Roland’s excitement about painkillers for example). But there wasn’t even that. Nor was there a hint of interest in the implications of a strong, powerful black man striding into our New York as a Gunslinger. Missed opportunity. The real world implications are important to the books, and would have updated easily and effectively.

I did enjoy quite a bit of the movie despite this: Roland and Jake had exactly the right dynamic, especially when it came to Roland’s interactions with anything new.

Jake: You had fairgrounds in your world?
Roland: No one knows what this is.
Jake: It’s a fairground.

Roland in the hospital, popping painkillers and glugging sugar; Roland loading himself down with bullets and doing his Gunslingery thing; Roland getting himself injured and pushing through the pain because that’s what Roland does. These were the moments that reminded me why I made myself read all the books, and they actually made me want to read them again. The movie just about managed to squeeze in his thawing, and the way he comes to care for Jake, but it wasn’t given much space. For any viewer who wasn’t at all interested in filling in those gaps by reading the books I can’t imagine it did much. And yet the movie had so much time to play with! It was short. And yet the beginning still dragged.

So, it wasn’t nearly as awful as I’d been expecting. But what saved it was largely what I’d expected would make it bearable anyway: Idris Elba as Roland Deschain. Supplemented by the surprisingly good Tom Taylor as Jake. But even when I was enjoying it, I was constantly wishing for more colour and more ambition. It’s like the only way it finally got made was by someone giving up and saying ‘this can’t be done, just write some fanfic that sort of covers it and we’ll make it monochrome and moody and people will get the idea’. No. Gilead should be colourful, even in its dying throes. The Tower stands at the centre of a field of red roses. The sandalwood handles of Roland’s guns are a warm and polished ochre. The denim is blue and the grass is green. But here, everything was grey and timid, going for the lowest common denominator and expecting the least from its audience. It’s a pity, because what I always loved about the books, even when they descended into self-referential farce, was the scope and ambition of the world-building. Sure, half the time it barely made any sense, but if you centre it on characters who are worth following then it’s all bearable. I had to go and see this movie because those characters used to mean so much to me, and I can’t quite say that watching it was a total waste of my time because there were still just enough flashes of the Roland and Jake I came for.

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