One year ago, MediaBrewPub’s resident low-brow Andrew – a fanatic Stephen King fan – was amped for the film adaptations of The Dark Tower and It that were set for release the following year. He asked resident high-brow Jun if he’d like to read The Dark Tower series (which comprises 8 novels) and discuss them in the buildup to the movie. Jun agreed, and Andrew was kind enough to buy and send him copies of the first two books. Jun began reading, as did Andrew. One year later, days before The Dark Tower arrived in theaters last weekend, Andrew finished his third readthrough of the series. As for Jun? He was a single chapter into the second novel. Needless to say, they were prepared, and the two of them watched the movie on opening night. This edition of the High-Low Report commences on the following day. While they will venture into spoiler territory, spoiler tags have been added, so consider this a safe read if you haven’t seen the film.
Andrew’s thoughts are in red, and Jun’s in blue.
I gotta say, I’m glad I read The Gunslinger (the first novel) before I saw this movie. Not because it was a fine read (for those who haven’t read it, it’s a pleasantly weird read), but because without it, I probably would have felt more befuddled than I was during the movie. I pity anyone who goes into it without any knowledge of the story or the world. To me, The Dark Tower seems like a poor adaptation of the books, but – having only read one – I’m not exactly in a position to say that. I am, however, in a position to say that it’s not a good movie. At all.
Perhaps the best way to describe the film is that it’s a jumbled mess. Anyone expecting a rich and vivid fantastical world is in for a rude awakening since the film seems rather afraid to flesh out its mythology, which we only get hints of. The plot has very little dramatic tension, and by the time the credits roll, chunks of it feel inconsequential. It puts more effort into the numerous Stephen King easter eggs and references than it does into character development. Speaking of which, the filmmakers – director Nikolaj Arcel, the four credited screenwriters, and the producers – choose the wrong character to lead the film, and the results are just excruciating. I will say that the film isn’t necessarily boring, but that’s because it never stops moving, and I wasn’t really invested in the whole affair.
Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting much from the movie since all the signs of it being bad could be seen in the months leading to its release. I was left not devastated, but instead hollow and numb. Andrew, with you being MBP’s unapologetic King fan, you probably had much more riding on this movie than I did. What do you think of The Dark Tower as an adaptation?
Oh man, this film. I told you before that I had really low expectations. My problem with this film is that it was so aimless that it didn’t make me angry about how terrible it was (I think it’s not the tragic piece of garbage it could have been) and also didn’t provide anything worth investing in emotionally (which, given the short runtime, probably would have been hard to do). It reminds me a bit of the critique you shared with me once about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – it felt like a film that was trying to create moments without creating real scenes. I’m almost upset because it landed exactly where my expectations were. I would have preferred being pissed over this “meh” feeling that I’m having right now. It just didn’t bring out any emotional response.
I was not expecting a great adaptation. For those of you who have read the series and saw the media leading up to this film, this was supposed to be treated as a potential sequel or alternate universe to the books. The reason being is that Sai King (little DT universe jargon for you Constant Readers out there) “ended” the books by showing Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) being stuck in a permanent loop, having to complete his journey to the Tower over and over á la Sisyphus and his boulder. There is no indication that the journey is the same each time (and I would argue there is clear indication that it is not based off of the final floors Roland encounters in the Tower) and therefore the filmmakers are not bound to adapting the source material in a way that they may have with other serial intellectual property. My problem is not their attempt to adapt King’s magnum opus. My problem is their inability to create a cohesive world or story that would attract both fans of the source material and newcomers to the Dark Tower universe.
I’ll give credit where it’s due. I think they got the casting right. I also think they created an environment in Mid-World that fits what I imagine from the books. They did a wonderful job at placing cool Stephen King easter eggs throughout the film. But the failure to pull me in stems from two things: (1) I love Jake (Tom Taylor) in the books but I followed Roland through over 4,000 pages of text and the fact that he’s not the main character is silly to me, and (2) the whole damn thing felt rushed. They wanted action sequences, they wanted New York City, they wanted easter eggs, and they only gave us 95 minutes. Where is the opportunity to get attached to the characters? Where is the chance to get settled into the world created?
In the first novel, you are introduced to Roland, the Man in Black (Walter O’Dim, Walter Padick, etc. – played by Matthew McConaughey), and Jake as key characters of the story. You learn about these three based off of their interactions with short-time characters that are introduced along their travels. It’s a way to connect to the characters first while King built the mythology around them in far more deliberate fashion. Why not commit to something – ANYTHING – first, then bring out the big guns (literally and figuratively speaking)? I can give you a laundry list of creative liberties that were taken in regards to the mythology of the series, but like I said, I’m okay with the world being different. What I’m not okay with is a lack of foundation for the liberties that were taken. It was the cinematic version of tea that hasn’t been steeped long enough. It screamed of a lack of patience or long term planning. I don’t know, man. What do you think? I certainly was taken aback by how short it was considering the volume of material they tried to fit in.
I was taken aback as well by the 95-minute runtime when it was first reported, but honestly, given what we had seen and heard about the movie up to that point, it arguably shouldn’t be very surprising. An unfinished cut of a trailer was leaked in October last year, but we didn’t get an official one until three months ago. The release date was pushed back twice (over four months), which is a telling sign that a movie needs work. There wasn’t really much of a marketing campaign until like a month ago. Throw in the rumors of a troubled production, and we have a bunch of signs that point to a bad movie or one that the studio has no faith in, perhaps both.
I think it’s possible for the movie to be good with a fairly short runtime, despite the sheer volume of material from the novels – it just comes down to how that time is used. The Dark Tower does not use that time well. I had a difficult time emotionally investing in the story, and there’s little to even hook onto. What’s insulting is that the movie expects you to buy into the stuff it’s doing a half-assed job at selling. I mentioned before that it’s scared to flesh out its mythology, and one moment that exemplified this was when Walter tells his assistants/underlings that Roland’s guns are made from the sword Excalibur. That sounds like a pretty big deal, and it’s relegated to a throwaway line, with nothing building up to that and leading to nothing. There are so many hints and flashes pointing to a larger world, and that’s all they are – just hints and flashes. Plus, the movie is haphazardly edited. Some scenes and sequences feel as though they were either cut short or footage was obviously cut from them. It definitely feels like the movie was meant to be longer, and the filmmakers just truncated the hell out of it to the point where it has no soul.
Another failure that stems from its runtime lies in its characters. As you noted, Roland should have been the main character. Aside from one dream sequence/flashback, he doesn’t appear until about a half hour in, and even though he’s infinitely more interesting than Jake, the movie seldom develops him – he remains a badass who shoots well, which makes for good marketing material but not necessarily for a good story. I really like Idris Elba as Roland because his presence in a way speaks for the character, but because of the story’s structure and how it treats Roland, I feel like what we see of him on screen is 60-70 percent of a complete performance, if that makes sense. As for Jake – hoo, boy. He may be the main character, but not only does he feel like a passenger on this whole journey, he’s just not likable. Tom Taylor’s performance doesn’t do Jake any favors. I don’t like to beat up on a young actor, especially a relative newcomer, but he just cannot emotionally carry the movie, and his delivery is often cringeworthy. Taylor has the look for Jake, but little else; there were times when I wished that Jake was mute since I felt that not only would he be more bearable, the story would probably be more interesting. I will say that Taylor is a bit better when sharing scenes with Elba or Matthew McConaughey, but that’s because he’s not commanding the screen – they are, so he’s merely reacting to them. I’d say that of all the characters, Walter is probably the one whom the movie doesn’t sell short or overblow, apart from the corny dialogue and supervillain-like powers. He’s quite fun to watch, and what helps is that McConaughey gleefully chews scenery like no other. There are several other characters as well, but none of them quite register.
What are your thoughts on the characters and the performances, Andrew? I remember you were pretty excited when Elba and McConaughey were cast.
I’d echo most of your thoughts on the core trio of characters. In the cases of Elba and McConaughey, it just seems like a wasted opportunity because I really do think they did a good job capturing the spirit of their characters. It’s disappointing that the spirit was left without any direction or, in the case of Roland, enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
When I speak about creative liberties, I was most disappointed with Roland. If you’ve read the novel, Roland never strays away from his commitment to reaching the Dark Tower. He is only chasing Walter to achieve this goal. He sacrifices his friends, family, and personal happiness to reach the Tower. The only reason he protects the Tower is because he hopes to reach the top – not for the greater good. I’m fine with him being interested in vengeance but there was something compelling about Roland’s single-mindedness in the novels. Gunslingers have a strict code, but he sacrifices this to reach the Tower. The Tower is far less cliché than revenge, and it lowers the gravitas of Roland’s character far too early in the series for me. Read this quote from Wizard and Glass (the fourth book) about the Tower:
“Yes,” said Roland. “It’s real…It’s real, and our fathers know. Beyond the dark land—I can’t remember its name now, it’s one of the things I’ve lost—is End-World, and in End-World stands the Dark Tower. Its existence is the great secret our fathers keep; it’s what has held them together as ka-tet across all the years of the world’s decline…I choose the Tower. I must. Let [Susan] live a good life and long with someone else—she will, in time. As for me, I choose the Tower.”
This is Roland speaking about the love of his life – cast aside so he may follow the path to the Tower. Does this sound like a man who would give up the quest for the sake of revenge? More depth might have swayed me, but we did not get anything that showed me a different Roland from what I know, and revenge does not do his character justice.
Speaking of creative liberties, Walter is way overpowered. It’s fine, in a sense, but it takes away from Walter’s strength as a manipulator. When you are that powerful, you can basically do most of whatever you want and one of my favorite aspects of the Roland/Walter relationship was the sense that they drive each other. It’s not the greatest comparison, but for a portion of the Dark Tower series, it’s much like the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty – it lends itself to a specific type of behavior. Walter lays traps for Roland in the form of people and places, forcing Roland to continuously make the heartbreaking decision to abandon those bonds for the sake of the Tower.
I want to reiterate that creative liberties are fine, but there was a lack of depth to what was given to us when they took those liberties and it leaves me comparing the film to the books. That lack of substance forces me to turn back what I know, and what I know is better. Were there things I thought were done well? Yes. Elba’s “stranger in a strange land” moments were spot on. We reviewed Wonder Woman together, and much like we enjoyed Gal Gadot’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed responses to children and ice cream, I loved Elba’s bewildered responses and literal questions that remind you that despite his history, he is not of Jake’s world. Additionally, I actually enjoyed the Mid-World village sequence from top to bottom, as I like the villagers’ initial awe-inspired response to Roland, the way they challenged his motivations as a gunslinger, and how he carried himself in the battle that followed. Claudia Kim’s Arra was probably my favorite side character in that she was used to shed more light on Jake and Roland’s respective powers and history (and she’s quite cute). I appreciate using side characters to learn more about the heroes moreso than getting characters introduced with seemingly important roles (such as Jackie Earle Haley’s Sayre) but without any sort of real backstory nor clearly defined necessity to the plot.
If there was a moment that sums up the way I felt about the movie, it was Roland and his father Steven (Dennis Haysbert) fighting Walter. They recited the Gunslinger’s Creed in the midst of battle. It seemed silly and out of place considering the context of the situation. In the books, the creed is used during teaching or ceremonial moments – not in the heat of battle. Used in the right context, it gives me goosebumps. Used inappropriately, and it just comes off as a waste of words. They used it appropriately later when Roland first allowed Jake the use of his guns – but the damage had been done. This movie felt like lots of cool things used haphazardly without thought to how they connect with the scene or story. What about you, Jun? Any moments in the movie that capture your feelings regarding the film?
I’d have to go with the sequence where Jake investigates the house he sees in his visions, the one that eventually allows him to enter Mid-World. The best way to describe it would be, shit happens and nothing registers. There are definitely some things in the house worth noting, like the graffiti “All hail the Crimson King” (which suggests something but no explanation is given), the portals to other worlds, and the malevolent floorboards force that attacks Jake – all of which point to the larger mythology that the film is supposed to portray and explore. However, there’s no sense of anticipation or discovery here, and like I said, these things are present just…because. They’re big deals that are somehow rendered irrelevant, and the movie expects us to buy that they’re big deals. The Dark Tower is just chock-full of these wasted opportunities, and it has the audacity to think that we would care about its story and its world.
That’s not to say that the movie is unsalvageable, as there are some scenes that I did like. Like you, I enjoyed the “fish out of water” story elements, where Roland has to comprehend the fact that he’s on Keystone Earth (Jake’s world) and is thus unaccustomed to its cultures and lifestyles. Not only are his no-nonsense reactions to anything he disapproves of just flat-out hilarious, they impart a sense of who he is. While I’m disappointed that the movie doesn’t spend that much time in Mid-World compared to Keystone Earth, I do like what I saw of it, especially when it comes to the threats that Jake and Roland face. Those are the scenes I wouldn’t mind seeing in a better version of the movie.
For better or for worse, this is probably going to be the only version of a Dark Tower movie. Yes, one can hope for a director’s cut or something similar for the home release, but I don’t think the inclusion of deleted scenes will make this movie into a great one. I also doubt the possibility of Sony greenlighting a sequel. Its budget may not be very high, but I don’t think its total box office gross will be all that inspiring for them to move forward with a sequel. Our best bet to see the saga continue would be the TV series that’s in development, and I imagine the smaller screen would lend itself better for a more fulfilling adaptation of the source material. While I did find this movie lacking, I certainly wouldn’t mind following Roland on further journeys.
Given that it took Hollywood nearly 10 years to bring The Dark Tower to the big screen, it’s disheartening to find that this is what we ended up with. The filmmakers had a treasure trove of ideas to play with, and they churned out a baffling, soulless mess. As I mentioned before, I was expecting the movie to be bad, so it didn’t leave me indignant – instead, just numb and rather apathetic.
I think it’s safe to say that the two of us aren’t fans of the movie. Andrew, would you say you’re optimistic or pessimistic regarding its future? How do you think or hope it will play out? Do you have any final thoughts about the movie?
Despite its failures, I’m happy that this movie was made. I probably would have liked it more if they hadn’t revealed all the cool stuff in the trailers. Just seeing the trailers made me excited, especially the way the creed was used – it was better in the buildup than in the final product. Additionally, seeing Roland reloading his guns would have been far cooler if they had set one or two of those techniques aside for when I saw the film. A lot of the “oomph” was taken because the studio blew their load in the trailer – that hurt the experience.
But if this movie proved one thing, it’s that Roland (and Elba as Roland) is worth a watch. That gives me high hopes for the TV series. Considering it will be based on Wizard and Glass, which delves quite deeply into Roland’s history, I think there is significant potential. Also, it is often considered the best book in the series, so if there was a story that can win a bigger audience, it’s that one. I’m not sure I can picture a sequel for the film, but if the TV show is successful, it might encourage Sony to take another shot at creating a better movie. One can only hope. As Roland says, “There will be water if God wills it.”
Andrew’s Rating: 2.0/5.0
Jun’s Rating: 1.5/5.0
* Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures