You know the studio fought for this movie to be PG-13. When reading the books, I'd say HARD R. Watching the movie, I felt like it was a sneeze away from PG. It was definitely lighter than '80s PG. I wonder if the director fought someone to say, "C'mon! At least PG-13. I can't show my face in public if I made The Dark Tower a PG film."
DIRECTOR: Nicolaj Arcel
We did a whole podcast on this! Wait, you didn't listen to it? You probably should. Let me give you background. I covered this in the podcast and I'm going to stop prefacing things I write with that. But I said this was going to be my big intellectual summer. I was going to read As I Lay Dying and A Farewell to Arms as I watched the Apu Trilogy and the Criterion release of the BBS Story. If you didn't understand a lot of that, simply understand that what I wrote showed how much of a snobby turd I am and that I shouldn't have the power to speak to the rest of the Internet. But then Sony, whom I have now put on my hitlist, announced that The Dark Tower was going to be a sequel to eight very long novels. I had read the first two books in the series and was super excited to get another entry in the franchise. But those books were getting longer and I tried my best. I spent so much time. Then Mr. Henson told me that I had to read 'Salem's Lot, which I agree with if I want to enjoy Wolves of the Calla. So I spent my intellectual summer exclusively reading giant Stephen King books. Then I watched the movie.
I totally wasn't a sequel.
It was a sequel in the most liberal, squint-and-you-can-kinda-see-it sort of way. I hate that so much. They did it to pull in the hardcore fans that were getting nervous about the tumultuous production history of this film. When I heard that a Dark Tower movie was coming after I read The Gunslinger, I got really excited. The books are really suited to become this massive franchise, rivaling Game of Thrones. Think about it. What if The Dark Tower replaced Game of Thrones on HBO after Thrones was over? That would be the best. The best. If you haven't read the books (and I really don't want to start this big hullaballoo over book v. movie, because that's not really the argument here), please do. The books are absolutely fantastic. The movie isn't only a bad adaptation. I don't necessarily need my adaptations to stay faithful. The movie itself is really, REALLY bad. It won't make my "Worst Movie List" (If I had one), but it is a big stinking pile of crap that was wildly unenjoyable. Yeah, I saw the reviews too. Sometimes, when reviews hit that level of garbage, it almost steels me towards watching the film. It puts my expectations in a healthy place where I'm sooner ready to attack critics to defend the film. Not this time. The reviews are pretty accurate and this movie is bad. I think I've waxed poetic about my vitriolic dislike of Sony in other reviews. But Sony might be the worst studio out there. They might be the last holdouts of the old, heavy studio controlled system that used to dominate the '90s and earlier. After early screenings of The Dark Tower, director Nicolaj Arcel came out and told him that Sony told him that he couldn't do much with this movie. He kept having his hand slapped for trying to go as gutsy as the books encouraged him to be. That's what I love about the books. They are the most gutsy examples of fantasy that I've read and I wanted to see just that spirit translated to the screen. Instead, the movie is a typical blockbuster summer movie with a story that moves at a breakneck pace, not allowing the viewer to identify with any of the characters.
The weird part is that I really like the casting. I think that Idris Elba as Roland is inspired. I have these editions of the books that have paintings inside every sixty or so pages. It always shows Roland as a white guy. But since I found out that Idris Elba was going to play Roland, I read the book with Idris Elba's delivery and look in my head. Idris Elba is the Gunslinger to me and I'm amazed that he didn't have a lot to play. The film has Roland as a kind of post-apocalyptic Punisher, looking for the wizard who murdered his father and his family. (By the way, Dennis Haysbert is also inspired as Roland's father, but again, doesn't have anything to actually play in the movie.) The revenge thing is part of Roland's persona, so I can understand why this element is stressed in the movie. But Roland is far more than simply a killing machine. He is on this obsessive and holy quest to save the multiverse. That's right. I said multiverse. (For those who don't know what a multiverse is, think every possible dimension.) He is this man charged with saving everything that ever is and ever was. He appropriately sacrifices himself and others and knows that sacrificing others is the right call to make in every situation. That's pretty intense. Most times we have characters willing to sacrifice his friends for a greater good, that makes him the bad guy. At least that makes him kind of unlikable. The movie never really touches this idea. He actually seems pretty cool with letting the Dark Tower fall, which is just a wild misunderstanding of everything that the books talk about in terms of the character. The torture that he faces is not the fact that he cannot get his hand on his enemy. The torture is that he knows that he has to do horrible things in the name of the greater good. Can't you just imagine Idris Elba taking that character on? That's fantastic!
I also really dug Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black. (Not Johnny Cash. Joaquin Pheonix already did that just fine.) When I read the books, I don't see McConaughey. The casting isn't as inspired. But I really liked him as the Man in Black when it worked. The problem is that the Man in Black is really overpowered for this story. He's a wizard, so expect Voldemort-y things, but he keeps using the same trick of murdering people over and over again. That's always a bit of a letdown. I know, it is central to the nerd debate that everyone always brings up. You know that scene in X2 where Magneto uses trace metals to make murderspheres? Why doesn't he do it all the time? Because that is boring for an audience. It is really cool once. But there is something about the fiction narrative that requires the story to have new and clever ways of murdering / getting out of situations. Having the Man in Black say "Stop breathing" is cool once. Three or four times just gets old. Also, I feel like the Man is Black is way more complex than the script McConaughey is actually given. Rather, the Man in Black is the main villain of the movie and his intent is evil for evil's sake. I think that the book's motivation is really ambiguous, which makes the character somewhat more mysterious. Some people could claim that as a fault, but reading the character as this outside of time character makes him very cool. He's also the Nick Fury of the Stephen King universe, only if Nick Fury was super evil. (Okay, he's kind of on the outs with most of the Marvel Universe right now, but not the MCU Nick Fury.)
The really weird thing is that I'm a semi-expert in these movies. Like I mentioned, I read the first four books before seeing this movie. I had no clue what was going on with a lot of it. Apparently, all this nonsense happens in the books after the one I'm on. I know that the books probably portray this a lot cooler than the movie did, but I now don't really want to read the books for a while now. You know a movie is a big stinker when it takes something you love and makes you not love it anymore. I don't feel like I've wasted my time with the books because those books were very entertaining. Part of me still wants to go forward and finish the books. You know why I know that the books would be good? The movie sanitized the parts that I even knew. It took all of the fun out of these stories and that has to be true with the stuff I didn't understand. Mr. Henson assures me that the books only get more crazy and more weird, but none of that craziness really translated to the screen. So what the movie really did is just spoil the rest of the books for me in the laziest way possible. I now know the plot going forward and what characters will show up, but they aren't the versions that I'll either love or hate. Instead, they'll be wet washcloths of characters, so I guess that's okay. It's just kind of a bummer that the movie decided to go so blah with everything.
The biggest disappointment was the opportunity lost on The Dark Tower. Considering how big cinematic universes are right now, setting up a story that is inherently a cinematic universe seems like it could have been a big deal. The movie teases the fact that The Dark Tower is a bridge to all of the other Stephen King movies. There's a sign for Barlow and Straker. There's the Overlook Hotel. Gosh golly and another gee, Jake climbs over Pennywise's carnival. The It movie is coming out in a few weeks. How is this not something that Sony would want to invest everything into? I feel like they have become the most gun shy studio now because they took big dumb risks so they just won't take any risks anymore. There had to be talks at some point about this being a bigger deal than it actually was. There had to be talk of a four hour version of this movie that was all about the Gunslinger and nothing else. It was going to be epic, I'm sure. I now look at those early days of New Line Cinema, trusting Peter Jackson with the Lord of the Rings franchise and throwing caution to the wind. Sony has great properties. Why can't they handle them well? Remember that hack a couple of years ago? That was so telling, but we still never really get the why? Why do a bunch of corporate suits still refuse to move with the times? Why are they the one studio who feel the need to constantly defend their redundant jobs? They are murdering awesome properties and doing everything for the cash. I'm in an era where I'm defending most of Disney's choices and Sony doesn't have the mental capacity to move with the times? That's a weird thing because someone at Sony keeps buying up potentially amazing things and a million people between that purchase and release need to get their hands on it and destroy it. I mean, look at Jake! Jake is easy to get right. He's a little kid who gets lost in a fantasy world. He's the Goonies character without the mouth on him. (Pun intended). But instead, they had to make him a teenager. Sony definitely wanted teenagers to see this movie, right? And instead of being dependent on Roland, let's have him do parkour. Kids like parkour, right? What the crap, Sony? It seems like market research determines everything you do and you stopped making movies.
All I'm saying is that you better not screw the TV show up too much, Sony. In my wildest dreams, you'd start with The Gunslinger, but I know that it is going to be about Wizard and Glass. That knocks other people's socks off, so I'm cool with it for now. But stop being such a shell of consumerism and make something that you can be proud of. We don't want Marvel to step in and make your Dark Tower franchise too, do you?
They did make a Dark Tower comic book, after all.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.