The checkered legacy of Stephen King adaptations for the big screen takes a significant downturn with The Dark Tower, a disastrous effort to launch a fantasy franchise that fails its source material on nearly every level.
What was an ambitious mix of genres and settings on the written page becomes a woefully incoherent mess of overwrought action and watered-down subtext that won’t please either fans or newcomers to King’s acclaimed series of novels.
The film apparently is meant to be a sequel of sorts, while incorporating prior narrative elements. Yet what results is mostly awkward and consistently confusing, with jarring shifts in tone — involving elements of time travel, old-fashioned Western hero archetypes, supernatural monsters, a metaphysical universal order, and more — along with a basic failure to explain simple rules or motives.
The story starts in the present day, where Jake (Tom Taylor) is a precocious youngster whose drawings reflect nightmares he insists are true. And indeed, while his parents dismiss his visions, Jake is soon thrust into a sprawling battle for intergalactic supremacy involving parallel dimensions.
He is transported to a post-apocalyptic future, where he finds an ally in Roland (Idris Elba), a beleaguered leader of the Gunslingers trying to save the universe from Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic wizard trying to unleash evil beings through harvesting the minds of children who are key to destroying the Dark Tower, which protects Earth and other planets.
Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) crafts some haunting imagery from a combination of splashy effects and striking landscapes — whether the glossy sheen of contemporary Manhattan or the stark desolation of a futuristic Western wasteland.
However, any visual appeal is compromised by the hopelessly muddled screenplay, which exhibits a blatant disregard for extracting any character depth or sociopolitical context from the books, and maintains a frustrating emotional distance from its characters and their plight.
Indeed, it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for Jack, a nerdy moppet with a Justin Bieber haircut, as he battles against a cartoonish villain with slicked-back hair, greasy skin and a trench coat channeling a cut-rate illusionist lacking the magic to rescue this train wreck.
The film reduces a complex mythology to a glorified video game that funnels its thinly sketched subplots into an obligatory final showdown. But for a concept with the future of mankind in the balance, the film itself feels inconsequential.