The Rundown: Young Jake Chambers has been having nightmares about a dark tower that is being attacked by a Man in Black. Nobody believes him, not even his parents. Jake has also had visions of a Gunslinger who may be the only hope to save the tower. He thinks. Maybe. So he finds a mysterious portal and tries to save the world.
So The Dark Tower, based on the acclaimed novels of the same name by illustrious author Stephen King, opens with Jake and his visions. We get some screen time of Matthew McConaughey as the chillingly evil Man in Black, taking little children and plugging them into some weapon that is blasting the titular Dark Tower. The tower being destroyed is supposedly a bad thing, and stopping it is the ‘good thing’ and that’s about as much as I understand about what is going on in this movie.
As is probably obvious by the paragraph above, I have never read more than a single chapter of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, and none of that chapter is in this movie. That chapter included some character exposition about the movie’s main character Roland (played by the ever-impressive Idris Elba) which we don’t really get in the movie itself. We get to know that he’s a ‘gunslinger’ which seems to have some meaning to the people in this world, but which isn’t made clear to the audience except some vague lines relating to King Arthur.
This confusion and lack of context for what are supposed to be the main characters of this big-budget, sci-fi spectacular is something that runs throughout this movie. We get the full story of Jake Chambers, a kid having visions, but those visions are only vaguely connected to what seems to be a story of revenge and betrayal that doesn’t come across. Mainly because they never show us the betrayal. The two characters at the center of this conflict seem to know each other, but we’re never told how they met, or why they hate each other. Instead of the rich story that clearly connects these two characters who easily fit into the ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ roles, the movie decides to follow the McGuffin (an item that exists to help drive the ploy forward, examples include The One Ring, the Death Star Plans, or the Ark of the Covenant).
Jake’s only interesting trait is that he is innately strong psychically, which he himself is unaware of. So he has powers, but he can’t really use them. While this might have been a hook that could show him gaining some proficiency and helping take on the bad guy, he never gains enough proficiency to truly help beyond opening a few closed doors. We also get no character moments that don’t feel painfully generic. He has spooky dreams, nobody believes him, he loves his mom. These traits don’t paint a picture of the type of person he is, and make him fairly uninteresting as a protagonist.
A thing I discovered when reading a bit about the books after the movie (as I was in desperate need of the context the movie failed to provide) is that the Gunslinger IS the protagonist of the series. This makes the decision to follow Jake even more baffling, and why you wouldn’t focus on the interplay between the Man in Black and the Gunslinger puts The Dark Tower on The Last Airbender levels of bad in terms of adaptation. Similar again in that the sets and effects were fine, but almost everything else was awful.
This movie fails on so many levels. The story, while straightforward in a ‘good vs evil’ kind of way, is convoluted enough to still beg so many questions that are never answered. Idris Elba and McConaughey deliver fine performances, but are not given the scenes to really shine, and Jake (newcomer Tom Taylor) isn’t enough of a character to really care about beyond his function as the McGuffin. This movie wanted me to know it was not made for me. It was made for people who had already read the eight-book series, and have obsessed over every detail. I think even they were probably let down by this empty, vapid movie.