‘The Dark Tower’ Review: Big Screen Adaptation of Stephen King’s Gunslinger Epic Misfires

The attempt to launch a franchise is ultimately a poorly edited, truncated mess

Stephen King has described his multi-book series “The Dark Tower” as his magnum opus, an attempt to create a world and a mythology much like “The Lord of the Rings.” This complex epic includes eight main novels that tie back to several other books by King, and the attempt to make an initial feature film out of all this unwieldy material was clearly going to be difficult. The film as it stands was definitely not able to surmount this difficulty.

The film begins with a title card explaining that a dark tower stands at the center of the universe, or something along those lines, and that the mind of a child could bring it down. “The Dark Tower” does suggest that the mind of a child was at work here, but not in the wonder-like Steven Spielberg sense that might have been intended. The 95-minute culmination of years-long efforts to bring “The Dark Tower” to the big screen is a complete disaster, a limp, barely coherent shell of a movie.

The unfortunate thing is that the basic material of “The Dark Tower” as presented here is promising. If it had been directed by Spielberg or one of Spielberg’s supposed heirs like JJ Abrams, perhaps it might have worked out. But Abrams, who was the first director attached to the film, left in 2009. His replacement, Ron Howard, abandoned ship in 2015. The job finally fell to Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”). But Arcel has no control or touch at all here.

Following the explanatory title that opens the story, there is a brief sequence involving children and Matthew McConaughey’s villainous Man in Black that is marked by confusion and sheer awkwardness (the editing feels particularly ungainly here, as if parts of something else that had been shot got pasted quickly together). Then we go to modern-day Manhattan, where young Jake (Tom Taylor) is grieving the loss of his fire captain father and dealing with a passive mother and an uncaring stepfather. He keeps dreaming about a tower, and he sees both the Man in Black and The Gunslinger (Idris Elba), who is meant to be the hero of the story.

Jake’s predicament has a potent element of childhood Oedipal fantasy to it, but his specialness within the world of the plot gets ludicrously overdone. He’s revealed as a psychic who has a special “shine,” (referencing another famous King work), and even McConaughey’s luridly mean Man in Black is impressed and intimidated by him, but all this does is add to the feeling that there is really nothing at stake here. If the tower falls, monsters come from space to kill us, or something like that (it gets very vague at times).

As The Gunslinger, a man who takes himself very seriously, Elba is stuck with choppy action sequences that also seem like they were badly cut and pasted together, and when the character reaches Manhattan he has to carry some very clichéd “fish out of water” scenes. The very brief bits we see of Dennis Haysbert, who plays the father of The Gunslinger, suggest that Haysbert probably had a more substantial part originally.

“The Dark Tower” is mainly noteworthy for McConaughey’s enjoyably bad performance as a force of evil who can set things on fire with his hands, order people to stop breathing, and grab bullets as they fly through the air. As McConaughey swans through scene after ridiculous scene, it’s almost as if he is deliberately aiming for a Razzie Award to go with his Oscar. Imagine RuPaul playing Clint Eastwood and you will get an idea of the mixed messages of his work here, which suggests both fatigue and a brand of steely camp that is entirely his own.

Worst of all here are the scenes where The Gunslinger teaches Jake how to shoot guns and his fetishizing of guns in general. The Gunslinger keeps telling Jake that he must kill with his heart and not his gun, but that dubious distinction gets totally lost in what is finally an incomprehensible pile of junk that has no claim to the epic reach that King might have been going for.

Most of the scenes in “The Dark Tower” feel like a desperate compromise of some kind, and often there seem to be scenes missing that would simply get us from one point to another. With fantasy material like this, we need to be made to believe in the inventions and the conceits, and we cannot do that if they are shot and staged in such a truncated and perfunctory way.