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Movie Review: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower only works when Idris Elba's on the screen
Aisle Seat, Rob Slack

The Dark Tower

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel

In Theatres

But first, a disclaimer. I would watch pretty well anything with Idris Elba in it. I would be perfectly happy watching Idris Elba read a phone book, a grocery list.  As a commenter on Fark recently said, I would be perfectly fine watching two hours of Idris Elba reading Yelp reviews. Some racists were upset when Mr. Elba was cast as Heimdall in the Thor movies. I was upset when Mr. Elba wasn't cast as Thor. Idris Elba as Bond? Why the hell not? My dream is Idris Elba as Bond, Denzel Washington as Felix Leiter. Actor, writer, director, DJ, musician. In 2016 he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. There is little Idris Elba cannot do, much he can. If aliens landed in my backyard and asked to see my leader, I'd take them to Idris Elba. So, yeah, if I did some kind of rating thing the casting of Idris Elba alone would add a bunch of stars or thumbs or whatever. 

Which brings us to The Dark Tower

Is a book always better than the movie? Sometimes. Occasionally. Secret Window is nowhere as good as Secret Window, Secret Garden. But The Shawshank Redemption stands heads and shoulders with Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Stand By Me stands heads and shoulders with The Body. Apt Pupil is a fine film, but sits in the shadow of the novella. Let's walk away from Stephen King for a moment. Jaws the movie is one of the greatest things of ever. Jaws the novel is an unreadable mess. The Godfather surpasses the novel in every single way. So, let's separate the literature from the movie. They're separate expressions of storytelling. You don't need to read the story for the film to be complete. If that was the case The Wizard of Oz, Arrival, The Kingsmen, Apollo 13, Children of Men, Die Hard, any movie with the words Planet and Apes in the title would be incomplete experiences. And what I'm going to do here is judge the movie The Dark Tower with no further reference to the novels. If that's not your bag, if you want to have a discussion of all the ways the movie is better or worse than what Stephen King wrote go for it down below in the comments. But what I'm going to try to do is judge the movie as a movie, not as an adaptation. 

Is The Dark Tower any good? Is it worth your hard earned dollars? It's a competently shot action film, with a few moments of brilliance and many moments of just plain dumbness. Most of it, however, is, well, just competent. A better director, someone more gifted in the language of action and fantasy world-building, might have been able to wrestle the movie into something better. But, instead, we have… competence. The Dark Tower is fine. It's fun. But the filmmakers seem like maybe they just couldn't take the premise all the way. Everything that is fun about The Dark Tower, everything that is cool, every wow moment, every reason to pay the monies to watch this film in a dark theatre with strangers comes down to Idris Elba. Remove Idris Elba, cast someone else as The Gunslinger, and The Dark Tower would be just a bland stew of m'eh.

Idris Elba elevates a movie that could have been dull and boring and charmless. His gravitas, his quiet dignity, the way he wears the role of Roland, the way he moves through the movie. The Dark Tower is still a mess, and whenever we leave Idris Elba the film begins to crumble. Every moment with Mr. Elba feels like it was taken from a much better film. Where the director doesn't seem to have the conviction to go all in with the fantasy meets spaghetti western film he was hired to create, Idris Elba sells it, wears the weirdness with pride and dares anyone to scoff. Mr. Elba is The Dark Tower's greatest asset. With Idris Elba, The Dark Tower is in the middle third of films with Stephen King's name attached, maybe pushing against the top third. It's not as boring as Secret Garden. But it's not as much ridiculous fun as Christine. No Idris Elba and The Dark Tower is on the same shelf as Maximum Overdrive. Or maybe Thinner. Not as horrifyingly bad as Dreamcatcher, but no Children of the Corn either.

Tom Taylor, as Jake Chambers the kid who dreams of The Gunslinger and The Man in Black and The Dark Tower and people wearing human suits, is a fine young talent. He holds his own in scenes with much older and accomplished members of the cast. Matthew McConaughey as the villain of the story brings an almost bored and laconic quality to the role. But where Idris Elba can glide and effortlessly sell the ridiculous dialogue in this movie, Mr. McConaughey's performance stumbles on some of the more ridiculous lines he has to say. Also, I don't know who mixed this film but the audience should never be made aware of post production dialogue recording. Most of Mr. McConaughey's lines sound like they were recorded over an iPhone 4. While sitting in a port-a-potty. 

The director, Nokolaj Arcel, who, I assume, is a wonderful person, is just not up to creating whatever vision was agreed to in the story meetings. Most of the New York pre-Idris scenes have an almost 90s TV movie of the week quality. The cinematography is bland, the film looks flat. The editing of The Dark Tower, for the most part, is a nightmare of poor decisions. With few exceptions the supporting cast is just barely phoning it in, just barely acting at levels found in direct to video sci-fi movies. Katheryn Winnick, as Jake's mom, is a breath of fresh air. She performs honestly and is emotionally moving as a mother worrying about her son's mental health. And Jackie Earle Haley is always great fun, chewing all of the scenery. But, for the most part, the supporting cast of The Dark Tower is worryingly and troubling bad. 

And so we find ourselves back to the question, is The Dark Tower worth your hard earned monies? Not really. Unless you really want to see Idris Elba shooting things on a big screen. Now, if it's a rainy afternoon and you're flipping through the channels looking for something to watch, that is when The Dark Tower will shine. It'll never be a day changer like Shawshank or Misery or The Shining. But it's fun, just not as much fun as it could have been.