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THE DARK TOWER Is Entertaining, But Not Groundbreaking (Review)

Fantasy epics are hard to adapt, and even the most successful ones get flak for not living up to the scope and breadth of their source material; just look at how upset people are with Game Of Thrones for all the ways it has dropped characters and streamlined storylines over seven seasons. But bringing Westeros to life for 10 hours every year feels like a walk in the park compared to cramming Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, a set of dimension-hopping magical horror novels that span decades of his career and even include him as a character, into a tightly paced 95 minute film. That’s exactly what director Nikolaj Arcel has attempted to do with The Dark Tower, and while it might not hit the same surreal highs its source material, it’s at least a valiant effort.

I should admit upfront that my personal knowledge of the Dark Tower series is fairly limited, so I can’t speak to how closely the movie follows the books with true expertise. But as it turns out, you don’t actually need to know all that much going in; as Entertainment Weekly reported last year, the movie is both a loose retelling and a sequel, depicting events that take place after the books’ cyclical ending. (You can see the Horn Of Eld poking out of Roland’s bag, but only if you spend the entire movie looking for it.) Practically speaking, this makes it ideal for newcomers, although purists might have a hard time forgoing what they know of canon to embrace a new version of the world they love.

The biggest change fans will have to reconcile, I suspect, is who the movie is structured around. Although the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), is ostensibly the hero of the franchise, The Dark Tower instead chooses to tells its story through the eyes of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young boy from our world who has vivid dreams of the Gunslinger and his nemesis, the mysterious Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey). When Jake realizes that these dreams are actually visions, he journeys across dimensions to find the Gunslinger and help him protect the eponymous Dark Tower, which lies at the center of the universe and keeps all of reality safe from the demons that lurk beyond.

When Elba was first cast in the role, some onlookers expressed shock and even dismay at the idea that Roland would not look exactly like the white man depicted in the original illustrations for the book. Now I can’t imagine anyone else playing Roland with the same world-weariness and physical precision that Elba does; he’s easily the best part of the movie, and I bet that everyone who picks up the books in the future will be picturing him as their gunslinger no matter what kind of illustrations they’re looking at. Matthew McConaughey is also sufficiently charismatic and menacing as Walter Padick, although his powers of magical persuasion would feel more terrifying if the movie had been released before Netflix’s Jessica Jones series, which features a villain with similar abilities (and a similar penchant for antagonizing women — Walter kills men and women alike, but almost all the characters that he takes time to terrorize are female).

That, in fact, is the biggest challenge in adapting something as expansive and genre-bending as The Dark Tower: how do you make it stand out from all the other sci-fi and fantasy franchises that indirectly owe their existence to it? In this area, the movie has a difficult time setting itself apart; despite all the Stephen King easter eggs, at times it feels more like somebody took the Western-futuristic aesthetic of Firefly, blended it together with the sorcery and demons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and slapped some Stargates in for good measure. (It also didn’t help that Fran Kranz is all but reprising his role from Dollhouse as the villain’s glorified tech guy, which might have put Joss Whedon’s work in my head early on.)

This isn’t to say the movie isn’t enjoyable to watch, because it is — Idris Elba and Tom Taylor have a wonderful dynamic together, and the gunslinging action scenes are appropriately cool. But it all feels strangely… conventional, somehow. Considering that the series is so beloved precisely for its indescribably epic qualities, that might be a kiss of death for some fans. But for those who are content to hear Roland evoke the Gunslinger’s creed on screen for the first time, or those who’ve always been just a little too intimidated by the series to dig into it (guilty as charged), the movie makes for an extremely accessible jumping-on point. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling more compelled by the books when you inevitably read them afterwards.

Rating: 3.5 Out Of 5 Burritos

Images: Sony

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