Good news: you don't have to have read a single one of Stephen King's eight Dark Tower books to follow along with Danish director Nikolaj Arcel's The Dark Tower. In fact, fans of the series are likely to come out even more confounded than neophytes, because The Dark Tower is somewhere between sequel to and reduction of King's sprawling, messy universe.
King's books are a Möbius strip, with protagonist Roland Deschain's journey looping back on itself in a sort of damnation-by-eternal-recurrence. At the end of the eighth book, though, Roland possesses something that will break that cycle. Pre-release chatter said Arcel's The Dark Tower is actually a follow-up, tracing Roland's final journey, but as far as I could tell, Roland's Special Item is nowhere in sight.
Four screenwriters are credited — Arcel and fellow Dane Anders Thomas Jensen, plus studio hacks Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinker — which gives the film the same sort of ambient incoherence that buzzes at the heart of all these would-be franchise-starters. The movie's immediate production was troubled enough, but there's been a Dark Tower adaptation kicking around since 2007, when J.J. Abrams was attached. It bears the scars of a decade's worth of production hell plus test screenings and scattershot reshoots.
For all that, The Dark Tower basically feels like a mid-tier, chosen-one YA adaptation. There's a bad man named Walter (Matthew McConaughey) who's harvesting children's psychic energy to shoot giant lasers at the Dark Tower — a thuddingly literal transposition of a bit of text at the film's opening about how the "mind of a child" can bring the tower down. Cut to: The minds of children being used for that exact purpose. Never tell the audience once what you can tell them twice!
The Dark Tower binds the multiverse together. A sort of warrior caste known as "gunslingers" are sworn to protect the Tower. The last gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), seeking revenge on Walter for killing his father (Dennis Haysbert, briefly). Because we are idiots, the script eases us into this world through Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a kid in NYC who has visions of all that cosmic backstory. Roland doesn't show up for half an hour (the movie's only 95 minutes, but feels like 130) and doesn't fire a gun until even later. Jake is not that exciting, though Taylor is fine in the role; there's just not a lot to his character. He finds a portal to Mid-World, where he meets up with Roland, and they go after Walter. They get Walter. The end.
The film's technical merits are few. Stately wilderness shooting in crisp focus, courtesy of DP Rasmus Videbæk (The Good Heart), shares space with identikit CG beasties and post-Timur Bekmambetov slow-mo gunplay. Arcel and his many masters end on a totally anonymous final image, devoid of anything except a cursory nod to book readers. Unlike in those books, the violence is bloodless and means little, though Idris Elba's raw physicality is its own special effect. The climactic showdown between Elba and McConaughey has the latter waving his arms about like he's playing Kinect while Elba pulls the triggers on prop pistols.
To be fair, the magnetic, absurdly sexy Elba is perfectly cast as Roland Deschain — it's the movie around him that falls apart. He has the Eastwoodian terseness and barely buried vulnerability the character demands, but they saddle him with focus-grouped, Wonder Woman/Thor-style fish-out-of-water bullshit. McConaughey plays Walter as a louche, open-shirted Criss Angel type, which is symptomatic of the film's lack of imagination. In the books, Walter o'Dim is better known as Randall Flagg, a sorcerer who gleefully feeds on chaos and blood, recurring not only in The Dark Tower series but in King's post-apocalyptic The Stand (1978). McConaughey's Walter is the same generic small-time Bad Guy as Jude Law's petulant Vortigern from Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a movie which is leagues better than this one.
There are a host of requisite Kingverse Easter eggs, from Christine to Cujo to 1408 to Salem's Lot to It to The Shining. Maybe the double shot of this movie and next month's It adaptation will spark renewed interest in King's body of work. It certainly does not do justice to its source material, which is uneven and personal and self-destructive and absurd — anything but faceless. Not bad enough to be fun and not good enough to have potential, The Dark Tower is at least proof that with enough studio men on hand you can feed literally anything into the blockbuster machine and get the same old shit out the other side.