The Gunslinger’s heroics in the final act of Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel-spanning opus, The Dark Tower, might have prevented the titular monolith from falling, but the kinetic bullet dodging couldn’t slow down the blockbuster season. The growing hyperbole of, among others, Pennywise the Clown resulted in an all-too brief turn in the spotlight for The Dark Tower.
Now with the film’s home entertainment release looming over us like a giant multi-dimensional structure, it’s time to take another look around The Dark Tower to examine the positive beams of light which project from it.
It is a rich, layered story to mine. At the heart of King’s story is an age-old tale of good versus evil, which manifests itself in the form of Idris Elba’s Roland Deschain, aka The Gunslinger, facing down his nemesis, Matthew McConaughey’s Walter Padick, aka The Man in Black.
Two outstanding actors, each embodying a character who fits perfectly with their raison d’etre; Elba brings the same stoicism to Roland that has made Luther such an intriguing character. Economical with his emotions, laconic with his words, he brings alive this particular hard rock to crack. You fully believe that this man has been wandering the lifeless expanses of Midworld for an eternity, avoiding interaction with humanity and seeking revenge or redemption in the demise of Walter.
Setting Elba up as this battle-hardened sharpshooter also allows for some thawing of his personality throughout the film. Our projection as an audience is on Jake (Tom Taylor), the troubled boy whose dreams lead him to travel to Roland’s world, so a believable relationship between the two is important. As a result we get some nice little Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home style fish-out-of-water moments when the adventure brings them to Earth. Roland telling some party hardened girls “you’ve both forgotten the face of your fathers” is a particular highlight in a movie ladened with moodiness.
As The Man in Black, McConaughey dials back the “alright, alright, alright” charm, instead replacing it with a laid-back swagger that makes the literary character his own. It’s a performance of deliberate cold disconnect, which is so much more unsettling than the pantomime way Walter could have been executed. As such, his cruelty comes from the dismissive way in which he doles out his punishments in a completely impassive fashion. The “hate” that he imbues a young girl enjoying an ice-cream with, or the callous way in which he deals with someone by ordering them to “stop breathing”, are acts of evil befitting of King’s creation.
Speaking of which, there were eight volumes of sprawling source material from which to summon a start-off point, so the decision to strip the story back and have Jake as the gateway to King’s world was a sensible one. In the first book, The Dark Tower Volume 1: The Gunslinger, Jake isn’t introduced for quite a while, so to throw audiences into a blockbuster movie without any established rules might have been a bit alienating. Audiences were never going to accept a slow-burn hour of world building before anything happens. It’s one of the reasons that The Dark Tower was, for so long [and potentially could still be], going to be a TV show, there’s just so much story to tell.
We get glimpses of the world into which the story could expand, King fans will have smiled with acknowledgment at the Crimson King graffiti, a recognisable killer car, and the Pennywise fairground relic was a neat touch, but thankfully The Dark Tower establishes the rules within a few scenes, mainly by giving us the relatable jump off point of downtown New York, and character with whom we can start this journey with in Jake. The duality of the two worlds and his piecing together of the plot is something we can cling to as an audience, rather than just being dropped into a mythology which is allowed to breathe in the book in a way that just wouldn’t work on-screen.
It’s not just the narrative world that the filmmakers had to get right, they also had to create a visual canvas upon which the story would play out. Midworld is rendered as a merging of immediate future and a beaten up past. The science-fiction elements look rusted, there’s a real decrepit feel to things, necessary for making it seem like an environment that is constantly having to rebuild itself from the verge of destruction.
Having said that, the expansive locales on display are stunning. It’s so refreshing to see a film in which in which the on-location shoot is preferred to studio lot green screen, with the rolling valleys and dark cornered canyons adding weight to the environment, and limitless size of this barren land. Director Nikolaj Arcel also makes the most of the sprawling concrete jungle, using it as a good mirror to the desolate world from which Roland comes.
Playing out against these inter-dimensional backdrops are the action scenes of The Dark Tower. Some are small, like the impressive stand-off with the demon in the woods, one of the few times horror comes to the forefront of the film, along with the genuinely terrifying sound of the beamquake screams. And some, like the rooftop chase, or the well-choreographed finale, which plays out like a cross between John Wick and The Matrix, are inventively fun. The mid-section attack on a village is probably the signature scene of the film though, allowing The Gunslinger’s Sherlock Holmes style killshot deduction technique to be stylishly executed.
Stephen King adaptations have a knack for finding a new leash of life when released on home entertainment formats (The Shawshank Redemption, The Running Man), which is quite apt for a writer obsessed with bringing things back from the dead, so regardless of how you felt about The Dark Tower, hopefully the small-screen access will mean it’s beamed into many more people’s front rooms, and we’ll get the further adventures of The Gunslinger somewhere down the line.
The Dark Tower will be available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download from 11th December.