THE DARK TOWER (directed by Nikolaj Arcel, 95 minutes, 2017, USA)
BY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC When your plot is essentially invincible cowboy knights waging eternal war on Nyarlathotep in order to save the universe, you rely heavily on conventions to forge a narrative. But the point is to build strong characters with emotional depth to drive the conventions home and create meaningful drama. The Dark Tower smothers its most interesting ideas with cliches, and gives no reason for the audience to care about the characters’ struggles.
Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are both fine, but not special. It doesn’t matter how good of an actor you are, bringing depth to a flat character is never easy. We never see their characters stray from convention. The Man in Black (McConaughey), receives most of his characterization from casual, meaningless evil. He waves his hand at a child laughing with an adult and says, “Hate.” Lo and behold, the child’s eyes turn dark; she hates. I was almost surprised he didn’t kick a puppy for good measure.
On the other side, The Gunslinger (Elba), is the last soldier of a mystical group of trenchcoat clad, gun-wielding warriors who are honor bound to save the universe. Sound familiar? Don’t worry at any point, though, because no matter how serious the injury, he’ll always recover from it. At one point, a shard of glass cuts through his hand, but The Gunslinger hardly reacts. In the next shot, he pulls it out with his teeth, and then uses the same hand to keep on slinging gun. If you don’t feel compelled to worry about him, well, why would you? Like Superman, he’ll just get up again.
Our main character, Jake, is supposed to be the vehicle for the audience’s sympathy, and the eyes through which the audience is introduced to this strange and brutal world. Instead of giving him a real personality, though, they rely on cliches to make sure the audience can project themselves onto him. He has trouble in school. His dad is dead, and his stepfather is full of cruel machismo, meaning that the Gunslinger becomes his surrogate father. His mother is kind, but, like all adults, she just doesn’t understand. When the faceless authority cracks down on him, he must escape to an alternate universe that only he knows about, to save all that is good in the universe.
And why must the universe be saved? Because otherwise the darkness would get in. Heaven forbid. How can the universe be saved? Apparently by shooting enough people and things until the bad guys stop. You might ask: what is the Dark Tower? How was it created, and why? How does it work? Don’t ask these questions. They won’t be answered. You learn just enough about it to know that those who want to destroy the Dark Tower are Bad, and those who want to save it are Good. Don’t try to look for a metaphor or any deeper meaning; there isn’t one.
It’s hard to boil this movie down to one core problem, because there are enough elements done halfway decently that it’s not bad, which is almost a pity. If it were bad, it might be more enjoyable. At least then we could mock it. Instead, The Dark Tower is mediocre enough to be just boring. The colors are gray. The world is expansive, but totally barren of any meaning or metaphor. If you can say anything here, it’s that The Dark Tower doesn’t aim with its heart. It has forgotten the face of its father.