Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Dark Tower (2017) - Movie Review

We’re going to be getting quite a few adaptations from the written horror legend Stephen King this year. I’m going to cover them as I do any other film, except I’m doing to do something a little different with these. Along with going over the individual merits of the films themselves as per usual, I’m also going to take this time to go over King’s own strengths as a writer, how they present themselves in his works, and ultimately how well these films stand up as a continuation of his ethos. And oh boy, do we have a doozy to start out with.
After being in development hell for many years, only truly getting off the ground thanks to everyone’s favourite hack Akiva Goldsman, to say this film hasn’t been well-received would undermine the sheer apathy that this has generated so far. Anyone who has read through my reviews for quote-unquote “boring” films in the past should know that failure to engage often ends up being a bigger sin than just being aggravating or thematic heinous. But is that truly what we get here? Let’s take our first dip in the King pool and find out.

The plot: Jake (Tom Taylor) has been having some weird dreams lately: A Dark Tower standing tall at the centre of the universe, a Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey) planning to bring it down and doom reality in the process, and a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) who is determined to stop him. However, it soon becomes apparent that these are more than just dreams, and as the two worlds collide, Jake finds himself embroiled in a battle to save the universe as he knows it.

The acting here takes a bit of time to really get used to, for varying reasons across the cast, but overall, it’s pretty solid. Taylor as our focal point character works out nicely, not only managing to stand next to Idris Elba and not just getting bowled over but also channelling some serious emotion in a few scenes. Elba’s very stoic delivery is where most of the growing pains come from, but as his rather depressing backstory and place within the universe sets in, his finesse as an action lead serves him well and his conversations with Taylor help the film through its duller moments. McConaughey, by contrast, takes the least time to start vibing with, his Southern charm giving way to a very engaging depiction of gleeful malice and just a touch of David Bowie-esque swagger. The rest of the cast, honestly, doesn’t leave much of an impression; nuff said.

This film has been in the making for a very long time now, and that age definitely shows but certainly not in any of the expected ways. Mainly, it comes through in the fact that this film would have fit in rather perfectly into the cinematic release schedule of a couple years back, when YA adaptations were the driving force in Hollywood. Actually, I might not even going back far enough in that assessment, seeing as this reads like a ‘classic’ first-wave bit of YA adaptation. Tell me if this sounds familiar: A conflict based in an unknown land spills out into the ‘real world’; with the help of a supernaturally-gifted child, the good guys have to save both worlds from destruction. If this doesn’t smell a lot like Harry Potter or the numerous clones of it that have cropped up since, I don’t know what does.
But, like I said, that was then; even third-wave YA adaptations have died down of late, in the wake of The Hunger Games finishing up. And that’s just taking the rather urban gothic Man In Black side of the story on its own; bring the Western influences of the Gunslinger into the mix, and the film starts to look more than a little confused. While there are definite moments where the film feels like it’s within its own element and telling its own story, the bulk of it feels like a hodge-podge of ideas likely meant to make the thick mythology of The Dark Tower books palatable to mainstream audiences.

This isn’t helped by how that same mythology is shown through this 90-minute film; even ignoring Akiva Goldsman’s involvement in the production, that running time on its own should be a sign that something is off. For starters, the Gunslinger’s creed. It is repeated numerous times throughout the film, connected to most of the film’s bigger thematic moments, and in all of that time, we never really get an idea of what the creed actually means, outside of vague spirituality. From there, we get snapshots of a bigger world under the characters’ feet that is explained enough to set up the main conflict, but not really enough to make it seem like there’s much to explore beyond it. Or, at least, that’s how it looks at first. While the story’s own mythos is rather surface level, there’s another kind of world-building going on in the background; namely, the world of Stephen King.

Looking at individual examples of adaptations of his works, from Carpenter’s Christine to Kubrick’s The Shining, you really wouldn’t get the impression that most if not all of his stories co-exist alongside each other. This film, more than any other adaptation we’ve gotten so far, starts to thread things together within the general King mythos. From certain numbers (1408) and phrases (All hail the Crimson King) to the ‘Shine’, the term used for Jake’s psychic powers. A prepubescent boy with psychic powers referred to as ‘shining’; even if you’ve never heard of Stephen King or The Dark Tower, a good few decades of pop culture references to the Kubrick film means that that has to sound familiar. At the very least, the phrase “Shush! You want to get sued?” should be coming to mind.
What I’m getting at with all this is that, for as scattershot as it looks as an adaptation of The Dark Tower, as an adaptation of King’s larger mythos, this honestly does more than most. Building up an entire universe within a single film is one thing; taking a seemingly-disparate decades-old bit of pop culture and using it to enforce the idea that said universe has always been there is another.

That under-the-surface connection to King’s stylings also rings through in the story proper. For as weird and occasionally alienating as the man’s work can be, his writings have always carried touches of autobiography. Usually, this comes through in how he thinks the entire universe revolves around Maine, but it’s also true for events in his own life; look at how many main characters he’s written that are either alcoholics, writers or both. Coming to grips with his own fears, his addictions and his grief laid the groundwork for his most celebrated stories, which in turn have been made into celebrated films.
Save for the ‘celebrated’ part, this film is no different. From the Man In Black’s ultimate goal (as shown in the film) to the Gunslinger’s mentality and the reasons behind it, even Jake’s own family life, death is a major theme of the film. Man In Black wants to wipe the universe away and embrace the inevitable, the Gunslinger wants some small satisfaction before it happens and Jake has been scarred by the death of his father; the film is no way subtle about any of this, by the by, to the point where Jake’s psychiatrist ends up doing thematic explanations for me at one point about what everything in his visions ‘represents’.

Not that lack of subtlety gets in the way of the feel created by these commonalities, as when that affiliation with death shows the deeper connections between the characters, it can make for some damn emotional moments. For all my talk about the adaptation sickness that runs through a lot of this, it genuinely feels like this film not only has real respect for the effort of Stephen King, but also gets the personal and rather confronting core of his works. Death makes the world look darker, and if you let it in your head, you start to want the darkness. But only if you let it. Maybe it’s because of my own brushes with death in the past but, even in a film that’s this arguably flawed, I still take comfort in a message like that.

All in all, if this is the weakest Stephen King film we get this year, we’re in a far better position as an audience than you’d think. The main acting is solid, the lean running time doesn’t end up affecting the overall product as much as I feared it would, and while the writing shows a certain unsteadiness in adapting this specific story, it also shows an understanding of the original author’s skill set that very few adaptations of his work end up granting. When your legacy is made up of films either critically lauded or mocked to the ends of the earth (fairly or otherwise), this makes for a nice change of pace. It may be a rather disposable iteration of a widely-considered-to-be-indisposable book series, but in the grand scheme of things, it could be worse. Probably helps that this is easily the best thing Akiva Goldsman has been attached to in years; he may be my favourite target, but I’m not that heartless.

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