Monday 4 September 2017

The Dark Tower: A Review

I finally got round to watching The Dark Tower today. I've been waiting a while to watch this movie. The trailer looked good, I've read most of the original Stephen King books and I love Idris Elba. I won't say I was completely disappointed, but I admit to being a little underwhelmed. It wasn't a bad movie. Merely okay. I thought it could have been better.

Warning: There will be spoilers. And I'm going to say some hurtful things about this movie, so if you're a die-hard Stephen King fan, you might want to turn away now.

Or you might not, seeing as King fans have already been saying hurtful things about this movie. In fact, some were criticising this on the basis of the trailer alone, because they could already see that the legacy of the books they loved was being distorted and sold short. I haven't bothered reading all of the fan commentary as I'm not particularly interested in scrutinising butt-hurt, but even non-fans found the movie a bit meh. So I'll give you my take on both the books and the resulting movie.

The Books
The 70's were a seminal time for literary fantasy. Tolkien was all the rage and many writers aped his creation, creating the sub genre of High Fantasy: castles, kings and beasts. Dungeons and Dragons games abounded with elves, dwarves, magic and broadswords. Even by the early 80's, you couldn't move for all the young orphaned princes seeking out their destinies in cities full of information-laden bar tenders and thieves guilds. The majority of such authors by then were American, and it always struck me as strange that US writers, and readers, were so taken by European mythology, rather than their own. I thought then that maybe it was time for someone to create a Tolkienesque epic in the great American wilderness.

Enter Stephen King, who'd been thinking that same thing back when I was almost too young to walk. He pulled together some short stories he'd published in magazines and created The Gunslinger, the first book in the sprawling Dark Tower series. Unfortunately, King was already famous for his horror stories and for the astonishing fantasy-horror, The Stand, which remains a favourite of many a King fan. The Gunslinger didn't really fit with his current works, and became, for a while, a minority interest. Since his publishers undoubtedly preferred him to stick to best sellers, he held off from writing a sequel. In the end, the Dark Tower series was written in fits and starts over the next twenty years, in between his more successful novels.

The Gunslinger deserved more attention. The book begins with the gunslinger Roland crossing a vast desert in pursuit of The Man In Black. Roland is no gun for hire, however. In this world, gunslingers were Arthurian knights, charged with defending a kingdom and steeped in honour and tradition. The Man In Black is a quasi-sorcerer, and both men are linked by a dark and turbulent past. Roland is the last gunslinger, and the world is filled with folksy towns, rolling sagebrush, mescaline visions and dark eyed preachers suspicious of the stranger rolling into town. You can almost hear the Sergio Leone soundtrack in the background. Magic and destiny is a strong but hidden undercurrent, six-guns bark their atonal rhythm, barflies and inbreds hit the dust and there's not a hobbit in sight.

It was a bold piece of work, but proof that even a best selling author of King's stature can't go against prevailing fashions. Sometimes good books fail because they're published at the wrong time. The rest of the series became more of a personal hobby for him, and unfortunately it suffers from not being written as a continuous sequence, when the original idea was still fresh. The Dark Tower series contains some of King's finest writing, but also some of his worst, and it becomes so disjointed and aimless that the final book in the series, The Dark Tower, was a bit of a mess that resolved nothing. So King went on to do another book in the hope of reviving the corpse and giving it some meaning. The entire concept of the series is grand and deep, but it was perhaps too much for even the mighty King to pull together. He was certainly striving for something big, but I just got the sense he couldn't quite pull it off. A significant number of fans loved it anyway, but it wasn't his best known work. Until now.

The Movie
Fast forward in time to 2017. A movie that has languished in development hell is finally released. Two stellar actors, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, take the lead roles. A lavish budget promised action and a sense of wonder as a grand battle between good and evil was prepared. One man's guns would go against another man's sorcery, and the fate of the world would hang in the balance.

Well, it might have turned out like that, but fans immediately spotted the biggest problem with this concept. The Dark Tower series spans eight books, some of them quite long, and there was no way all of that was going to be crammed into one movie: especially when that movie had a runtime of only 95 minutes. Clearly a lot of stuff was going to be left out - like ninety percent of the series's characters, for starters. The movie's been billed to the faithful as a kind of sequel to the original Dark Tower series - presumably to compensate for not even attempting to bring the original to the screen - but for most viewers, the world as depicted would make no sense without using some of the original stories.

You can tell you've got problems when you have to keep sacking and hiring new directors and scriptwriters. Look at the poster above and you will see no less than four screenwriters. You have to wonder how much of this movie was cut out and what had to be shoehorned in to compensate. This movie is also supposed to act as an introduction to a TV series, that may, or may not, be released next year. So this movie was never meant to stand alone - though, judging from the bad reviews, and if the proposed series is axed, it might have to.

I never expected this movie to do justice to the original work, so I approached it simply as something else. There was no reason why it couldn't be a good movie in its own right, and sacred cows make the best hamburger anyway.

If only. Idris Elba makes the best of his role, and he looks seriously cool and brooding. This makes it all the more awkward when you see him stuck in exposition hell as he's given a couple of scenes with terrible lines. Do actors wince inside when they recite such guff for the cameras? This is the problem with introducing so many concepts together in a movie that is so short. Wooden exposition from the mouths of several characters drags the story down from blockbuster to B-movie territory. Instead of maintaining his brooding Clint Eastwood-like character, Idris is forced to flap his lips to what sounds like utter balls. Matthew McConaughey suffers from the same problem, turning a dark and evil power into a dry narrator. McConaughey plays Walter, the sorcerous Man In Black, while Idris plays Roland, the gunslinger. Both men are immortal. We know this because Walter tells Roland, as if he didn't already know. He also tells Roland that he has a power in his head that resists Walter's sorcery, again as if he didn't already know. This is purely for the benefit of the viewer, but it's a clunky way of telling rather than showing. Okay, so the film is too short to show things in a more leisurely way, hence the parroted shortcuts, but it all gets thrown away with a bunch of extra small scenes that frankly do nothing for the story and could have been cut out altogether if the director couldn't be bothered to show their relevance. Considering that time was at a premium, there's a shocking amount of useless filler, like Idris showing his young protege Jake how to fire his gun (and intoning the Gunslinger's Code that we've heard already and didn't need to hear again), even though Jake never once touches a gun for the rest of the movie. A 95 minute movie needs tight editing and disciplined story telling. This ain't that.

Forgetting all the original Stephen King ideas, the movie still has to make sense on its own. Yet it doesn't. McConaughey's character is the evil dude who wants to bring down the dark tower. It's never really explained, however, why he wants to do that. He's already powerful, and can travel freely between the different worlds that the dark tower holds together. He's got armies of minions who can also travel uninhibited. There's nothing that can really stand against him. So why does he need to destroy the tower to 'unleash hell'? He doesn't need hell's assistance to be the baddest dude in the multiverse. In fact, his only obstacle to universal domination is Roland, yet instead of focusing on hunting him down, he tries instead to kidnap psychic children to focus their mind energies on destroying the tower. He's not a crazy loon, he's a coldly rational character, but the film never answers why he does what he does. Clearly, the part of the script that explained that got cut - or the fired screenwriter took it home in a fit of pique.

Too much of the film takes place in our own world (New York, to be exact), even though Roland's own world is way more interesting. The ruins of cities and old technologies hover in the mists and shadows, intriguing the viewer, but you never really get to explore more, nor hear how Roland's world got that way. You don't get a sense of the Old West either, in spite of the six-guns. The one community we encounter resembles more an urban group of multicultural students in their safe spaces than a rural spitoon-and-britches group of homesteaders and cow pokes. And apart from a seer, the rest are pretty disposable, so we don't really care when trouble hits their town.

The trailer for the movie is a masterpiece of pacing and editing. The same scenes in the movie, however, lose their edge when seen in their original context. The pacing of the whole movie, in fact, is uneven, rolling along nicely in some places and dipping pointlessly in others. The action scenes are okay and well choreographed, but there's not really enough prior buildup in tension to make you sit up and hope it all works out okay for the characters involved. The ending is fairly sudden too, like the director was keen to wrap up filming for the day. Roland shoots Walter dead, apparently (isn't he immortal?), then he and Jake make their way out. You don't even see them ride off into the sunset - they just disappear into a house, with a flash of light telling you they've just used a portal. And that's it. Walter's minions? The dark tower? Roland's intentions for the future? None of it matters anymore. Presumably we'll learn more in the coming series, except that the end credits show no indication of a series. I waited through the credits for a post-credit scene, like maybe Walter waking up and showing he wasn't dead, leaving the threat ready for the next instalment. But no, nothing.

This movie could have been so much more. There's a ton of source material to draw on, but hardly any of it was used. It's a serviceable story, but it lacks atmosphere, or a decent conclusion. Another 30 minutes could have fleshed out the world and really placed us there, caring about and experiencing the back story and the high stakes. In the end all we got was an okay film that wasn't really all that memorable. I wouldn't say it was a waste of my time, but it was certainly a wasted opportunity.

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