21 January 2022

52 for '22: The Dark Tower

Movie: The Dark Tower (2017)
Method: Netflix DVD

Also this is an Abbey Lee movie!

Why Did I Watch This?

Yeah, this is going to feel like a really random one. But should it? I am endlessly entranced by movies that were trying so hard to become franchise blockbusters but totally failed. I remember when this came out over the summer four and a half years ago and it had a lot of hype (or at least seemed like it), but no one watched it. It was one of those movies deemed to unfaithful to the source material to please diehard fans and too bizarre to entice newbies. I am a newbie. I've never read a Steven King book and I don't really care about The Dark Tower books. They seem to be this epic yarn that he definitely makes up as he goes along and full of all kinds of wacky nonsense. But the concept and the world is really interesting to me, and I have spent quite a bit of time on the Dark Tower wikis.

That's probably the saddest thing to hear if you're a King fan. But look, I know that I'd probably get more enjoyment and earn my keep as it were if I sat down and read these things, but ultimately I'm not that interested in diving head first into a really deep and complex new mythology. It is a hallmark of bankrupt culture that we are more obsessed with lores and wikis than story and character. For my money, this is actually a fundamental problem with how we construct new films or reboots, seeking to grasp at anything that requires deep lore and explaining. We've gotten so used to reading Wikipedia that we just treat our movies like that.

Anyway, this worked in my favor. I wanted to figure out this story but didn't want to a deep dive. Heyyy --- movie! And a beautifully crisp 95 minutes at that. It's actually perfect, which is nails on the chaulkboard for any fan of teh series. Well, I'm not a fan, so there. This has been burning a hole in my queue since 2017 and it was the kind of easy blockbuster Saturday night viewing I was into. Part of me also always wants to really see if a blockbuster's reputation of revulsion is as deserved as the Internet has decreed it to be so.

What Did I Know Going Into it?

I knew the basis of the mythos, that there is this big dark tower that's the center of all of Steven King's Universes and that it's got some roses. I knew Idris Elba and McConaughey were in it, and as I started watching it I remembered that it's all about this wiener kid for some reason. I'm not sure why movies ever think putting a wiener kid in the starring role is ever a good idea. That's actually probably about it. Also I knew it was really bad.

So How Was it?

Listen, this thing is not that bad. It is assuredly rushed and they zip through the mythology REAL fast. But honestly, you can understand what's happening. There's a Tower holding reality together that's at stake and the Man in Black is abducting psychic children to blast shine at it in order to topple all of reality so that these monsters from the abyss invade. Idris Elba for some reason is the only one who can resist his magics, so he's got to stop him. It's really not that hard to understand what's going on. I do understand that this glosses over an immense amount of lore, but who wants boring exposition in a movie anyway?

There assuredly a handful of shortcuts this movie takes, but I feel like that's always staples of Steven King. People find out where they need to go and what they need to do through dreams and visions and shining and fast traveling through portals and just about anything else they need to do in order to keep this thing a tight 95 minutes. This is especially evident in the first half, which is really just about how we can get this wiener kid to Mid-World as fast as possible. There isn't time for deliberation or organic realization of goals. It just kind of happens.

And for sure this isn't totally a bad thing. Contemporary reviews disagreed with me. This movie delivered what I want - stakes, got 'em, let's keep going. It didn't even fall into Rise of Skywalker (2019) level fetch quests, either. You learn pretty quick what they need to do, then they do it. It is kind of weird that (SPOILER) they do end up defeating Walter Padick and his scheme by just...shooting him (in a hotly debated trick bullet scene [which is super cool, just suspend logic about how fast bullets can travel. Also Walter totally slowed down the first bullet]) and then...shooting the evil shine machine. I guess someone just needed to shoot it. AMERICA!

There are other definitive weak points. At the time, reviewers seemed to dislike McConaughey, but I thought he does a great job here. He's deliberate and sinister while also being able to pour on Late Stage McConaughssaince charm and charisma to make his character work. And he's a supremely worthy adversary that they never back down from highlighting. He kills...a lot of people and everyone close to the protagonists. His presence is constantly felt through out the film and there's always a danger.

Idris Elba, on the other hand, got great reviews at the time. It's a bold move to cast him as the Gunslinger, who King originally modelled both character-wise and straight-up appearance-wise on Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. But honestly, he works so well as this character. Even King agreed right away. He worked so well that when I started googling pictures of Roland Deschain fighting lobstrosities I was thrown off by his whiteness. Totally how I picture the Gunslinger now. Like Hugh Jackman being a tall Wolverine.

The main problem comes, as I mentioned, from the fact that the Gunslinger just isn't our protagonist. It's this wiener kid, who has stupid wiener kid problems. It's all kind of been done before, almost Harry Potter-esque. Like, how do you take one of the most famous opening lines in pulp literature, "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed" and then...not do that? Heh, this is now me as a non-fan complaining.

I think that's what this film came down to. It was perfectly serviceable. But yeah, it didn't quite conform to its source material, or really even attempt to. And as I'm looking online, there is a surprising amount of hate for casting a black man as Roland. Totally bizarre! He worked really well here. Clearly that's some racist shit! It's amazing that I just read comments like "the direction and writing were shit!" without anything else to really back that up. I might say that the directing was competent without being compelling.

Actually, no, almost every shot is coherent, action scenes flow with a nice use of slow motion and highlighted character moments, the script is tight and efficient and the CGI is actually pretty decent for the amount of compositing required. The world feels authentic, expansive, alien, and lived in. The cinematography, which I now call in the scale of Venom: Let there Be Carnage (2021) to No Time to Die (2021) falls somewhere in between. It's not as expansive and breathtaking as it could be, but it's far from a paint by numbers thrown together job.

Again, Roland is the most interesting, biggest actor, biggest focal point of the marketing material. This is an Idris vs. McConaughey movie. It definitely gets to that, but we kind of need to know who is James Bond and who is Natalia here, right?

So, now the best part - cultural context! This film obviously didn't catch on...with anyone, but it doesn't feel like it was ever set up. Apparently it takes place after the book series, which (SPOILER FOR THESE BOOKS) I guess ends on a time loop with Roland restarting his journey? That seems...stupid, but this is then the first tale in his new journey? That's kind of inspired to start a film series that gets away without claiming to be a direct adaptation, but at the same time definitely is.

But there's nothing here to set up a sequel or create an investment in these characters. Sure they end and (ugh, SPOILER again, just spoiler for this whole movie, you're not watching it) after they kill the Man in Black say they're going to on another adventure, but there's no clear goal set up, or like, McConaughey waking up bait to take. I know, I'm just treating it like an MCU movie now, but...isn't that what they wanted this to be?

At the end, even though I enjoyed the hell out of a brisk 95 minute adventure movie, this should have invested more in itself to be an epic tale if it wanted to compete with the big epics out there. And it could have. That's where this movie draws a weird line. I genuinely like it as it is. If I saw this out of the blue as an original cinematic concept I'd have no problem. Since I don't care about Stephen King I'm still good. But this could have been pushed to become a major franchise, especially since it premiered juuust before King mania exploded with IT (2017) as one of the biggest movies of the year. We definitely don't need another epic blockbuster to invest in, but The Dark Tower could have dropped some elbows and thrown its weight around as a worthy adaptation. As we say on this blog again and again, it doesn't matter what the source material is, or what the fans like, or if a movie is long or short or epic or quick. What matters is if the movie is good or not. Could this movie have been good enough to demand our attention? I think so. Was it good enough for what I wanted this past Saturday? Abso-fuckin-lutely.

I'm prepared for hate from King fans. I don't care. This was better than The Langoliers.

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