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.