There’s an episode of The Simpsons, many years ago, in which Bart finds Lisa rummaging through the garbage can. She’s looking for recyclable material, she says, to earn money for her Junior Achievers Club. To which Bart replies: “Recycling is useless, Lis. Once the sun burns out, this planet is doomed.”
A remarkably similar notion is expressed in The Dark Tower. There’s a scene in which the good hero, a gunslinger played by Idris Elba, is fighting the bad guy, played by Matthew McConaughey, and one of them says something to the effect of, it doesn’t matter what happens because “We both know the universe will die out eventually.”
Using the impending and final destruction of the planet as an excuse not to recycle is comical when coming from a 10 year old. But it’s a surprisingly cavalier attitude coming from the embodiment of evil and chaos that the man in black / Matthew McConaughey plays in The Dark Tower.
If the universe is just going to die anyway, then what the hell are we doing here, gentlemen?I found myself asking that question throughout The Dark Tower: What exactly are we all doing here? Why is this movie playing? Who decided to turn 4,250 pages of Stephen King into a 90 minute movie? What is shine, exactly? What is outside the universe? Is there a god? Is Idris Elba him?
Unfortunately, none of these questions are answered in The Dark Tower (except the last one: Idris Elba is a god). Instead we’re left with a shockingly inferior late summer blockbuster that has all the incomprehensibility of a Stephen King novel, but none of the fun. The movie consists of drearily familiar science-fiction/fantasy imagery accompanying ominously delivered lines that must be taken completely at face value, because nothing, and I mean nothing, is explained.
If you want a plot, it’s that two people–or supernatural beings maybe??–want to kill each other and somehow the fate of the universe rests in the balance. A kid named Jake has visions, and he gets involved but doesn’t really seem to do that much, or maybe he is the key to how everything actually unfolds? I wasn’t clear on that. Also there’s a tower somewhere, and it matters so much that we never get to see it.
I knew nothing about the universe and mythology of the Dark Tower series when I went into the film, and somehow, after watching The Dark Tower, I know even less. Entire scenes are built referencing communal histories that are never explored or explained. At one point a character enters the frame (for the first time) explains that his “tribe” had previously decided they were never going to use the portal because of reasons, and someone else says they have to, but a third person says they can’t. Then they do. The clarity of this paragraph is more illustrative than the entire pointless exchange. Apparently this scene accounts for a whole book in the Dark Tower series.
But that’s what this movie is, scraps from a film that now lives on the floor of a Sony studio somewhere. After years of development false-starts and promises of a coming adaptation, this is what fans are going to get: junk. It watches like Sony had to release something because a lot of talented and hardworking people put their sweat and time into this project and they deserve a movie. And they do. But that talent deserves something better than this.
There’s no vision on display in The Dark Tower. No cohesion. The work of storytelling is absent, and the effort is entirely on the audience to make sense of what happens onscreen. The story should depend upon Jake and his difficult home life, but we get only a moment or two of drama there. He punches a kid, has bad dreams, and thus must be sent to a school for troubled children? Why? Because his step-dad is a prick? How does that follow?
In one scene a bat/insect creature attacks the heroes, but it’s too dark to see what it looks like, why it’s there is never explained, and when it’s killed they go to sleep. Sleep! That to me seems like a bad decision but apparently they’re certain no more of these mystery things are around (there isn’t). The whole scene adds up to nothing. It’s just a piece in a puzzle that we’ll never solve because we don’t know what we’re supposed to be looking at.
What’s really a shame is that even bad Stephen King movies can be fun. Dreamcatcher, the trashy alien-invasion sci-fi horror mess, is a perfect example of a movie that is simultaneously dumb, incomprehensible, and enjoyable. But The Dark Tower doesn’t have the self-confidence to strive for something as bat-shit as Dreamcatcher. Instead we’re left with a movie that barely unfolds. Rather than build characters or develop story, The Dark Tower takes short cuts that might possibly mean something to devoted Stephen King fans, but that are in fact utterly meaningless. The Gunslinger, for example, carries guns that are forged from the metal of Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword.
Is that a spoiler? Honestly, I’m asking, because I don’t even know. It’s just a piece of information randomly spoken into a random scene that seems to carry “meaning” due to the fact I recognize the name King Arthur. But does King Arthur matter in this story? Why? How does the man in black even know about King Arthur? The words are meant to signify something fundamental about this universe but it points only to this fact: The Dark Tower is a disaster.
There’s a chorus in this movie, a gunslinger poem or something, that warns against forgetting the face of your father. That’s good advice. Better advice would be on how to go about forgetting The Dark Tower.
-Christopher Zumski Finke