Why Did I Like THE DARK TOWER?

In which a DARK TOWER fan has an important palaver with themself.

I called the duty of reviewing Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower pretty much the second this website launched. A recent convert to the books, I was down with the proposed remix of the mythology and was nothing but excited by the casting of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey as Roland Deschain and Walter Padick. The months in the lead-up to the film did nothing to change that, with me being optimistic about the film through every delay in the release date, day without a trailer, and minimal update in Sony’s Sombra app. When a trailer finally debuted, I wrote an extremely positive write-up and was essentially bouncing on my heels with excitement for the movie.

But the dread slowly started setting in after a while. Word slowly started getting out about negative test screenings, a round of additional photography was announced that came seemingly out of nowhere, and the film’s runtime was revealed to be a short 95 minutes. With Tower junkies everywhere going completely apoplectic over these tidbits of news, I started having trouble keeping up my optimism for the film, to the point where I decided to not read any reviews and tune out of all social media before watching it.

My resolve didn’t last. As negative review on top of negative review poured in, I could just feel my enthusiasm sapping away, to the point where heading to the theater started feeling like a chore instead of being something I was legitimately looking forward to as a fan. As the lights went down for my 19:19 screening of the film, I just desperately hoped that I would at least not mind what I was going to watch.

But lo and behold, 95 minutes later I walked out of the theater with a grin on my face and a skip in my step. Against all my odds, I found myself enjoying the filmgoing community’s new favorite whipping boy. But it took me a little while to figure out exactly why.

Filmmaking-wise, the picture is average at best. The editing is all over the place, the action is merely passable much of the time, the color palette is fairly washed out, and there are no shot compositions that really stand out from the rest of the film. But at the same time, it never really sinks into total incompetence. Arcel’s control over the tone and pacing is strong, and there’s a fair amount of visual storytelling that surprised me, even if the film still has a lot of expository dialogue.

Script-wise, it’s kind of a mess. Jake’s dream sequences feel like they were shown out of order, at least half of the dialogue is exposition, not all of the mixed-and-matched elements from the different books fit together perfectly, and it definitely feels like elements of the story were condensed or cut in order to fit a shorter runtime. But at the same time, the world-building is well-done and solidly realized, with as much being told through the visuals as there is being told through expository dialogue, and the characters are well-written and rounded, with clear motivations present for them.

And the performances… are actually good across the board! Even Tom Taylor, who is sadly the comparative weak link as Jake Chambers, is pretty solid in the role, with his biggest problem being that his voice appeared to be breaking during the production. Idris Elba knocks it right out of the park as Roland, Matthew McConaughey happily hams it up as Walter (you will never hear a line reading as fun as “They don’t have chicken where I’m from.” this year,) and the supporting cast, featuring names like Kathryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley, Fran Kranz, and Claudia Kim, do admirably in their small roles.

Which ultimately leads me to something that feels really refreshing about the movie, which is that it only focuses on three characters. All of the character building is focused on Roland, Jake and Walter, and it helps the film a lot in the long run. It feels lean in a way we just don’t get from blockbusters these days, and I admire that. It’s a fairly simple and to-the-point enterprise, and is all the better for it as a result.

Which leads me to something that I ultimately cannot control: emotional investment. The time I spent reading the books has clearly rubbed off on me, because when a Tet Corporation logo played before the film, a wave of relief broke over me and I almost immediately felt at home. Jake walking around the house at Dutch Hill. Roland reciting the Gunslinger’s prayer. Walter grabbing Black 13. Roland comforting Jake. Roland discovering sugary drinks. A brief glimpse at a message board that may or may not show that Eddie Dean really is somewhere in this universe. These are all moments that my Tower-obsessed brain went absolutely bananas for, and because of this, I found myself pushing the problems to the curb and just letting the reality of the situation flow over me: I was sitting in a theater watching Roland Deschain waste Taheen soldiers and do battle with the Man In Black. I don’t care if this doesn’t make me “objective” or whatever, and I don’t even know if this feeling will hold up for me on potential rewatches, but in the theater, in that moment, I was watching a dream come true. And nothing can take that away from me.

The Dark Tower is probably not a good movie. It’s most likely doomed to the fate of being torn to bits by YouTube “critics” and having a few nominations at the worthless “awards ceremony” known as the Razzies. If the film has any luck, it will probably be made a footnote in the existence of a more-liked prestige TV show, similar to Michael Crichton’s Westworld. But at the same time, I really did enjoy Arcel’s picture, notions of being an “objective critic” be damned.

Long days and pleasant nights, and may you have twice the number.

  • I get it. I have a positive analogy and a negative analogy. Positive analogy: Star Wars! My emotional investment in the property as a 4-30 year old was as deep as it gets, and The Force Awakens, flawed as it is, was a total joy for me because it effectively delivered on some of my mind’s eye version of that franchise. Negative analogy: Star Wars! Because so did “The Phantom Menace” and in hindsight, I definitely let that emotional response get in the way, as I sort of loved it on opening night. Now I can’t get through it.

    • Lunaman

      I mean, I loved “The Phantom Menace” when I first saw it, too, but it was because I was a kid and there were lightsabers in it. It soured more and more with every rewatch and every year of exposure to film and literature in general.

      “The Force Awakens” has so much charm and such a fun core group of characters I connect to that I care less and less about the stumbles with each rewatch. It was a great source of child-like joy when I really needed it. My “final” opinion on it will probably depend on what Rian Johnson does with the dangling story threads later this year.

      • YayMayorBee

        I’ve revisited FORCE AWAKENS way more than I care to admit. It’s precisely that tension between Abrams’ Pavlovian bell-ringing and the half-baked ideas underneath that keep me coming back again and again. Try as I might, I just can’t hate it despite it’s evident, lazy, cynical shortcomings.

        • Lunaman

          Nothing else matters when Rey closes here eyes during the lightsaber duel. It’s Star Wars, for real, and I treasure it.

          • YayMayorBee

            That moment and the first 20-30 minutes are the best Star Wars has been since 1983. And it’s not even close.

          • Calvan

            Kylo Ren is probably the most interesting character in the franchise introduced since Empire Strikes Back. Dude is fascinating on several levels.

          • Calvan

            And also Finn is the best. Just the best. That’s all.

        • I can. But I love Kylo Ren on Undercover Boss, so at least it gave us that

          • YayMayorBee

            It’s hard to argue against that sketch being the single best thing to result from FORCE AWAKENS.

          • “I’m 90% sure Matt is Kylo Ren…”

      • I think my entire future interaction with the franchise depends on what Rian Johnson does with the next one.

    • YayMayorBee

      STAR WARS is the very first thing that popped into my head too. As much as I hated the prequels, the instant FORCE AWAKENS gave me a glimpse of the next-gen Star Wars movie I’d always had in my mind’s eye, I was back on the train. Not without caution or misgivings, but invested still. I can totally understand why a huge fan of DARK TOWER would be able to look past all of the film’s many flaws for the sake of a few emotionally-weighty things it does right.

    • I think Star Wars is what I’m expecting too. I will really want to love it like I used to, but I just can’t not notice how far it falls short of not only my expectations, but basic requirements for something to be good. I’m going to wait and download this film, I think

  • Lilgreenman

    This reminds me of my deep-seated relationship with Tomorrowland, too tempestuous to be called anything but adversarial. This makes me want to write about it – thanks so much for sharing.

    • Calvan

      Have you seen the Jenny Nicholson video on Tomorrowland? It ’twas interesting. I will be eager to read anything you write on the subject.

      • Lilgreenman

        “It ’twas” is as grammatically incorrect as “I’ve have”, but I’ll take a look.

        • Calvan

          I just want it stated for the record that I knew that before hand, and I was just being lazy.

          • Lilgreenman

            Duly noted.

  • jeves23

    I have a feeling that my own reaction won’t be far off from this – I’ve been a fan of the books for close to 25 years, and there is no way my emotion at seeing these characters on screen won’t get in the way of my more objective brain. At least on the first viewing.

  • YayMayorBee

    I love this. Somehow, the basic admission that you like something for shallow or emotional reasons feels practically brave. Online film culture is so invested in finding the intellectual case for movies that it seems weird when somebody just admits ‘it pushed the right buttons.’

    More reviews, especially of pop culture blockbusters, should be as up-front.

  • Calvan

    Excellent write-up. I have noticed that it is much more difficult to articulate why you enjoy a film no one else does, as opposed to not enjoying a film that everyone else enjoys.
    So articles like this are a treat to read, because you do it so well.
    Also, is the sugary drink Roland discovers still a Pepsi? or do they say? I can’t hold any decision against them, but if it’s Pepsi, I will love this movie for irrational reasons.

    • Something

      It’s a Coke.

      • Calvan

        *sigh* Well, I’ll still give this movie a chance.

  • Great write-up. How clear do they make it that it’s a continuation? Or is it not clear that it picks up after the last book?

    • Something

      Walter says “One last time around the wheel, old friend.” at one point, and there’s a few shots of Roland’s pack that feature the horn.

      • Ah. I was hoping it’d be more direct

        • ryanrochnroll

          Walter also mentions “the old crew” but it’s unclear which ka-tet to which he refers.

  • Ed

    I find myself in complete agreement with Bee here. I think two things helped: 1: that terrible reviews set my expectations really low, and 2: that as a dark tower fan I wanted more new adventures, rather than a mere adaptation of the books. And with that said, the movie works. It’s not amazing, but it moves quick, action is solid.

    And Roland and the man in black are expertly cast. Even with the subpar script, Elba can command a screen like few others.

    All that said, I have no idea what a movie sequel to this will be. They burn a lot of bridges for sequels in this movie

    • Something

      Arcel has said that he wants to bring in Eddie, Susannah, and Oy for a potential sequel, but I’m pretty sure one won’t end up happening.

      • Ed

        Agreed. And I’m not sure what the plot would be even if they do the drawing of the three. Without Roland’s need to find the dark tower in the film, I’m not sure what drives his journey forward, especially if he already killed the series best villain and stopped his plan