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The Dark Tower Pays Tribute To Classic Westerns, But Can’t Do Stephen King’s Book Series Justice

Sony

Stories in which the divide between good and evil is explicitly drawn can be comforting. Audiences immediately know who to root for and who will win out in the end. But while The Dark Tower establishes this divide within minutes, the ultimate battle between the metaphorical light side and dark side somehow falls flat.

Based on the popular Stephen King book series of the same name, The Dark Tower stars Pacific Rim’s Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, the universe’s last gunslinger and our resident good guy. All-powerful sorcerer the Man in Black, played by Matthew McConaughey, is Roland’s arch nemesis—he killed Roland’s father in his quest to destroy the Dark Tower, a structure that shields the universe from “dark forces.” The murder of his father not only makes Roland the last living gunslinger but also ignites Roland’s desire for revenge, initiating a cat-and-mouse game between Roland and the Man in Black that goes on for most of the film.

While promotional materials for the film may make it seem as if it focuses on Roland and the Man in Black, the true main character of The Dark Tower is Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young boy with untapped psychic abilities who starts having unusually vivid dreams about Roland, the Man in Black, and Mid-World, the dimension in which Roland resides. Jake eventually makes his way to Mid-World and runs into Roland, who reluctantly agrees to take the boy under his wing in an effort to get closer to finding and destroying the man who killed his father.

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The choice to tell this story from Jake’s perspective is a smart one. While King’s original series is told largely from Roland’s point of view, it’s much easier to relate to an eager, unexperienced boy from Brooklyn than a stoic, cynical gunman from another dimension. By focusing on Jake rather than Roland, the writers are also able to use Jake as an audience surrogate. When Roland describes the significance of the Dark Tower to Jake, the audience learns important information without being deterred by unnatural, overly explanatory dialogue.

And Taylor is certainly a talented young actor, getting the chance to exhibit a fairly wide range of emotions—from fear to frustration to relief—throughout the course of the movie. However, the character of Jake as a whole suffers due to a lack of development. What do we really know about Jake other than the fact that he has an oddly blunt friend next door, a loving but misguided mother, and a hard-hearted stepdad? In addition, some of Jake’s behaviour—his decision to save a young goatherd he barely knows instead of protecting himself from the Man in Black’s minions, for example—receives little to no explanation or payoff.

The father-son dynamic between Jake and Roland could also have been developed more fully. Elba and Taylor share a handful of heartwarming scenes, but ultimately the chemistry between the two characters never becomes as convincing as it could have been.

The movie comes in at just over 90 minutes, and its refusal to get bogged down with explanations about how and why the Dark Tower came to be and why Jake has psychic powers is, at times, refreshing. But more information about certain aspects of the film would have been welcome. Why does the Man in Black choose to harness the brain power of children and not adults? Who exactly is the Crimson King, and why has he been immortalized on the walls of the house demon? Dedicated readers of King’s series probably know the answers to these questions, but curious, uninformed movie-goers may leave theatres scratching their heads.

Also strange is the writers chose to dedicate many of those precious 90 minutes to fight sequences as opposed to scenes that could have shed more light on exactly who their main characters are. The unsettlingly cocky Man in Black makes me wish McConaughey tapped into his villainous potential more often (see 2011’s Killer Joe for full-tilt McConaughey villainy), but we never really get any information as to why the Man in Black wants to destroy the world in the first place.

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Interestingly, The Dark Tower’s emphasis on action, plot, and the clash between good and evil versus character development mirrors qualities of old school Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which King actually cited as an inspiration for his series. However, ignoring character in favour of plot is not enough in a world where even superhero flicks can move viewers (and cast members) to tears.

Fortunately for die-hard fans, a Dark Tower television show is supposedly in the works, which could allow writers and producers to explore Roland and Jake’s relationship more fully while presenting a good vs. evil struggle that’s a little more nuanced than the one presented in the worthwhile, but problematic, film.

The Dark Tower is in theatres today. Check out the trailer below:

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