Managing Stephen King’s firehose imagination is a challenge that has defeated most of the directors making his novels into films. They try to give the audience a drink of water, and they end up drenching everyone with silliness.
The Dark Tower, which joins a long line of misbegotten King movies, begins with some sinister energy: On what turns out to be a distant planet, children at play are halted by an eerie signal and summoned to an evil laboratory presided over by a sorcerer. We have learned in a prologue that the Dark Tower, on still another planet, is a kind of ultimate source of goodness whose emanations protect the universe, and that when it is finally destroyed evil will frolic like never before. Caveat: Said tower could be brought down by the mind of a child. The sorcerer seems to interpret this a bit literally: He keeps strapping a kid in a chair, putting a rocket under the chair, and using him as an interplanetary ballistic missile, trying to knock down the Tower with the kid’s noggin. Ow.
The plan hasn’t worked yet, but the sorcerer is determined to crack the code and bring down the Tower as a kid in New York City, Jake (Tom Taylor), picks up vibes about the nefarious scheme in dreams. Maybe he’s crazy. Or maybe the world just doesn’t recognize his unique gifts. In other words, he’s a special snowflake, and a dreary fantasy-movie cliché gets yet another reiteration. Could someone please make a movie in which the kids are actually wrong to think they’re possessed of special powers and have to learn everything from their elders?
The sorcerer, called the man in black, turns out to be named Walter, and I’m not sure you could devise a less scary name for your villain than that, unless it’s Edna or maybe Millicent. And he gets less scary as the movie goes on, spending most of its running time being more Vegas-y than nightmarish. As soon as the first tiny fireball appeared in his hand, looking like something David Copperfield might conjure up while performing on the same bill with Siegfried and Roy, I thought: Here it comes. You never go full Stephen King.
Soon the screen is being larded up with so many shimmering magical portals and glowing compasses and attacking floorboards that the movie is cheesier than a gouda factory. At one point Walter’s opposite number, the virtuous Gunslinger (Idris Elba), is confronted with a supernatural blob of fire from another dimension and he . . . shoots at it. With bullets. And it goes away. No, these aren’t super-duper space bullets, they’re just . . . bullets. Firing at an otherworldly energy field with an ordinary six-shooter out of the Old West is one of the movie’s many genre-mashup stylings that is supposed to be imaginative and fresh but just seems undisciplined and silly, the kind of thing toddlers come up with when they’re gleefully ramming together everything from the toybox. (See also: Cowboys & Aliens.) Flourishes that may work fine when they’re confined to the page seem laughable on-screen, and the visual effects are uniformly unconvincing. The film has a reported budget of $60 million, which is bargain-basement level for a would-be summer blockbuster. When it comes to digital effects, you get what you pay for.
The Danish director, Nikolaj Arcel, who has never before done a Hollywood movie and on the basis of this fiasco may never do one again — may, in fact, be run out of town by a mob of angry filmgoers — can’t wrestle the many “magics,” as Walter calls them, into any kind of emotionally involving order. Nor can he even make it clear what exactly is going on. What powers does Walter have, and what can’t he do? Your guess is as good as mine. At its best, the film explores the Gunslinger’s creed — “I do not kill with my gun. He who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart.” — and establishes a bond between him and Jake based on their shared mourning for their deceased dads. But those solemn moments of focus and grit are few.
Jake’s psychic power, we are told, is called “the shine,” and so to accompany the stink emanating from this cinematic landfill of ridiculous fantasy gimmicks, we are also given cause for worrying that King has forgotten that he wrote The Shining. Or is he just plagiarizing himself? There is a greatest-hits aspect to these proceedings, which include references to King’s The Shawshank Redemption (that Rita Hayworth poster) and It (Pennywhistle the clown). The big-screen version of the latter, by the way, hits theaters in a month, and it now seems certain to be the best Stephen King adaptation of the year. The bar to be cleared is low enough that an arthritic inchworm could clear it.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.