Can I praise Idris Elba with one faint damn? There’s something distant about his performances in the Hollywood franchises. He’s hiding under armor behind contact lenses in the Thors, and he’s unrecognizably slithery in Star Trek Beyond, and did he ever actually stand up in Prometheus? (I love Stacker Pentecost forever, but the best joke in Pacific Rim is how completely Elba dominates the film without ever making a noticeable expression.) That’s not him, of course, just this bland big-budget era, with fine actors lending paycheck charisma to universe extensions, saving the good stuff for showy indies and showier TV work. No denying, Elba gives good mentor, good sidekick, good bad-guy-with-a-secret. You can praise his profound accomplishment in resumé-building so many sagas in one decade: The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Trek Cinematic Universe, and the Aliens Cinematic Dumpster. Throw in the Disney voiceover work, if you want, and wait patiently for more Luther or the god-king who ruled Beasts of No Nation.
So say this for The Dark Tower: This is Elba’s first true blockbuster showcase. He plays Roland, a cowboy-knight on a vengeance quest across other worlds than these. His outfit’s nigh steampunk — formal vest and noir trenchcoat and ascot-y red scarf and belt full of bullets — but hell, he looks good in anything. In Stephen King’s original conception, Roland was a mad dream of Eastwood, a six-shooter ronin on a quest to do cool stuff in freaky places. It’s a credit to Elba that he gives the character some Man With No Name gruffness and genuine unwinking humor. He’s got too many lines that sound like explanatory videogame voiceover — “What happens in one world goes in others,” or “They sense your weakness, create illusions to distract you.” Elba makes that dull content sound stylish, and he shoots people with weary precision, like a myth grown tired of his own mythology.
The performance stands out. The movie around him is sadly pointless, weirdly forgettable despite a slipstream story mashing fantasy and science-fiction and Brooklyn. “A Tower Stands at the Center of the Universe,” opening text informs us. “The Mind of a Child Can Bring it Down.” That child is Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy whose whole world fell apart when he lost his father. “When you lost your father, your whole world fell apart!” his psychiatrist tells him, so there’s your precious backstory. Jake’s having bad dreams that he helpfully illustrates: A tower, a man in black, a dude with cool guns, ugly creatures with stapled-on human faces.
When the latter inevitably come to his apartment to child-snatch him, he flees via portal to a sideways reality. There wanders Roland, who explains his mission. There’s a Tower standing at the center of the universe, but you remember that from the opening crawl. There’s a bad man who wants to tear down the Tower and take over the universe, because merely conquering one world is old-hat, chum. (Everybody’s Thanos now.) The Man in Black is Matthew McConaughey, who spends the movie negging Roland via hologram, and using psychic kids to send glowing destructive brainbeams into the clouds, and talking way too much about how Jake’s shine is pure.
Let’s step back, shall we? The Dark Tower is adapted from books King wrote over the course of, well, his whole adult life so far. The first short story, “The Gunslinger,” appeared four years post-Carrie, but the author (and longtime EW contributor) claims that he was tooling around with the idea since his early 20s.
The Dark Tower books are nominally a fantasy series, but it’s more accurate to call them a series of fantasies. The early stories are spaghetti westerns mashed with high fantasy and Arthurian legend, plus sexy demons and the Beatles and poetry, dude! It’s everything you imagine a young writer liked circa mid-70s, but the later books thrive on left-turns, reflecting King’s maturing interests and the times he lived through: There are cocaine smugglers and ruined futuristic cityscapes, teen romance and pregnancy horror, a giant robot bear and a douchebag train who loves riddles. The saga gets admirably weirder as it gets deeper, edging into metafiction and memoir. (When you least expect it, there’s a clown.)
It’s rich, is what I’m saying, and a bit daffy. King wrote the saga gradually over decades, and circled back for some rewrites. The books reflect his invigorating fascinations, but I’m not sure he would claim that there was some grand elaborate plan for the saga. This isn’t some Westerosi fantasy continent, with a hundred towns labeled on a map. The Dark Tower‘s Mid-World is exactly as small and as big as any kid’s sandbox; it’s also called Mid-World, a hip abreev’d FanFic variant on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Which is the fun of it! Like Kill Bill or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Dark Tower is a cultural polymath’s look book, best understood in conversation with the pop that inspired it. Inevitably, King started layering in references to his other work. Some of the links are intriguing, but only one feels hilariously confessional: When someone gives Roland a copy of Stephen King’s book Insomnia, he throws it in the trash.
The first problem with this movie is how badly it wants to make sense of everything, to establish a clean through line through the author’s career-spanning zigzags. Early in the film, Jake stares at his bedroom wall, covered in illustrated pictures from his dreams of the Dark Tower lore. He looks like a frustrated screenwriter (the film has four) laying out all the disparate elements of the books to find an easy structure that could fit into a Wikipedia summary. (Or a Show Bible: This film could launch a film franchise and a tie-in TV show, though it could also do whatever the opposite of “launching” is.)
There are no conversations, only explanations, as if all human beings do anymore is talk about the tropes of their particular universe. It’s mostly just bland exposition, but sometimes a real howler slips out. Everyone in Roland’s world calls our planet “Keystone Earth,” like the Kops. At one point, apropos of why not, the Man in Black tells his henchpeople that Roland’s guns are forged from the steel of a very special sword: “I believe Keystoners call it Excalibur.” Oh, like that sword from Transformers 5?
Bad dialogue, lame plot, fine. The bigger issue: How could a film with Elba and McConaughey have so little swagger? “The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed,” goes the perfect first line of King’s first story. There’s your cinema: Darkness, wasteland, gunslinger. You could watch that tableau for hours: It’s a Sergio Leone movie in twelve words. Director Nikolaj Arcel tips his hat towards the original cinematic inspiration — a movie theater in the background promises “Spaghetti Week at the Majestic!” But The Dark Tower doesn’t want to be a western, barely spends any time in the desert, barely spends time anywhere, really. The plot is needlessly busy, cut to death at 90 minutes; whenever the pace lags, Arcel cuts back to the Man in Black’s control room, where people tell him things like (paraphrasing) “We’re trying to find the psychic” and “We’re still trying to find the psychic.”
The filmmakers had to make choices. So they tossed out the sex, the violence, the cocaine: Fine, thanks, PG-13! But you can sense some embarrassment, too, in the elision of all the weird bits, the things that would make Roland freakier or his world more unseemly. (Not one finger-eating lobster monster?) Somehow, this adaptation successfully focuses in on the precise plot elements that make The Dark Tower seem like the tenth variation of whatever The Mortal Instruments was: A moody special kid, a faintly goth subterranean society, the world at stake, secret monsters among us. Rarely has bleak grittiness ever looked so utterly inauthentic. Taylor spends the whole movie in a blue Zuckerbergian hoodie, and though he traverses realities and mountain ranges and inconceivable personal loss, I swear he never even unzips his sweatshirt.
There is one delightful sequence. Fleeing another muddy action setpiece, Roland follows Jake into New York. Dizzy from the cross-reality travel, the hero raises his guns toward a man brandishing a knife. The knife’s for chopping food; they landed in a restaurant kitchen. Later, Roland sips a soda and learns to love sugar. And he visits a hospital to find a groovier high: “These painkillers work fast,” he says, nonchalant, “I haven’t felt this good in years.” The comedy beats are familiar — it’s Idris Elba doing Last Action Hero — but the actor sells the humor without betraying Roland’s essential honor. We found the perfect gunslinger. Won’t someone please build him a better tower? C–