The Dark Tower: A whole lot of Stephen King whittled into generic sci-fi trifle

By Liam Lacey

A project that has been brewing for more than a decade in Hollywood, Stephen King’s eight-book fantasy series, The Dark Tower, should logically be adapted into a Game of Thrones TV series or a multi-part movie franchise. 

Instead, it has been whittled into a brisk (95-minute) largely forgettable B-movie treatment for a young-adult audience. With a second-hand looking production design and ordinary visual effects, it feels like a rough sketch or an extended trailer. It’s difficult to imagine this is the movie anyone actually intended to release.

The Dark Tower: So much is packed into the script, Idris Elba doesn't know where to shoot

The Dark Tower: So much is packed into the script, Idris Elba doesn't know where to shoot

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), the story is a spin-off rather than a attempted adaptation of King’s opus. The plot focuses on middle-schooler, Jake (Tom Taylor, who is very natural), a fatherless New York City kid with psychic powers, who travels through a portal to join forces with a supernatural hero against a malevolent sorcerer for the fate of the universe.

Opening scenes take us into Jake’s visions, which include a gnarly looking pyramid-shaped fortress, dark clouds over New York City and people with red scars behind their ears. Jake, whose fireman father died on the job some years before, is atroubled kid: He obsessively draws grim-looking figures to the point where his mom (Katheryn Winnick) and her mean new boyfriend (Nicholas Pauling) decide he may need to go to a residential clinic. 

Meanwhile in another dimension, the Man in Black, a.k.a. Walter, plots. He’s played by Matthew McConaughey, who looks like a lounge lizard, with shoeshine-black hair and unbuttoned shirt, (which seems unorthodox, though who’s to say how sorcerors should look?).

In any case, he winks and drawls and terrifies his staff of morose-looking underlings who are struggling to find a child with great psychic powers or “shine.” The idea is to strap the kid into a chair and force his psychic energy into a stream of flames into the sky which will destroy the Dark Tower that keeps away monsters. Obviously.

Once one’s expectations are sufficiently lowered, The Dark Tower is watchable enough, like a TV pilot for a generic sci-fi supernatural series. Walter’s psychic tracking devices soon zero in on Jake, but he eludes Walter’s minions and finds his way to a teleportation device in Brooklyn. Said device sends him to a post-apocalyptic Old West called Mid-World. There he meets Walter’s arch-enemy, The Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and they join forces in their serious game of Where’s Walter? 

To do so, they jump back and forth between Mid-World, and New York City, where there’s some mildly amusing fish-out-of-water comedy in a New York hospital.

It’s no big surprise that  Elba’s performance is easily the best part of The Dark Tower. Assuming an American accent just shy of a cowboy drawl, Elba acquits himself with brooding authority, and the bond between the man and the kid is believable and warm.  It would be nice to see them together in a movie that feels finished.

The Dark Tower. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel. The Dark Tower can be seen at Carlton Cinema, Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, Cineplex Yonge-Egliton, Cineplex Yorkdale and Scotiabank Theatre

Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather