Imagine you’re building your dream house. You spend years conceiving the structure and sourcing the best materials, and for a while, things are going great. Then, one day, someone informs you there’s no more money and you have two weeks before all the construction workers quit. Complicated window treatments are replaced by paper Home Depot shades, the imported tile floor with unsanded plywood. You end up with a majestic shell, a suggestion of the grandeur that might have been. If your tilt your head just so when you’re watching The Dark Tower, you can almost see the movie it was trying to be, a mystical saga spanning numerous worlds and genres. Stephen King spent almost 35 years writing stories about Roland the Gunslinger, Jake Chambers, and the Man in Black, as well as dozens of other characters, and although plans to develop the seven-book (and then some) cycle as a multifilm series never came to pass, the movie, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, wants to convey that sense of scale. There are whispers of a war that has been raging since the beginning of time, against a threat that is larger than the universe itself, of worlds that have been and worlds yet to be. And then there is the sight of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenage boy from New York City, being attacked by the floor of a decrepit house, which as it envelops him starts to look suspiciously like it’s been fashioned out of a cardboard box.
In an era less focused on the construction of cinematic universes, The Dark Tower might have been a faintly cheesy cult classic, one where the low-grade special effects and “Scene Missing” lacunae were part of its charm. But the movie that Arcel made and co-wrote, along with Anders Thomas Jensen, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner, doesn’t have the conviction that might allow you to look past its manifold shortcomings, and there’s nothing charming about it.
There’s so much potential in what remains of King’s story that for a good while, that’s enough. Jake, a troubled teenager whose disturbing dreams turn out to be manifestations of his nascent psychic powers—called “the shine,” one of many ways in which the story functions as an overarching framework for all of King’s novels—and those powers lead him to a portal to Mid-World, one among countless other inhabited planets strewn across the universe, and possibly separated in time as well as space. It’s there he meets Roland (Idris Elba), a kind of gun-toting warrior knight who is also a descendent of King Arthur, and learns about the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), an all-powerful sorcerer whose aim is to destroy the Dark Tower that keeps the universe in balance. Incorporating ancient myths and futuristic technology, magical spells and marksmanship, it mixes elements from so many kinds of stories that the mixing itself comes to be the point. It’s all the same tale, whether it’s played out with six-shooters or sky-rending blasts of light. Although it may be merely a clever ruse to keep fans of King’s books from complaining about this or that omission, the film’s makers announced last year that The Dark Tower is actually a sequel to King’s books rather than an adaptation of them, since the novels suggest that some version of the battle between Roland and the Man in Black is always going on and always will be. Perhaps that’s why the movie feels like it’s always running in circles.
Although The Dark Tower has hints of the science fiction, fantasy, and western genres, to name only a few, Arcel doesn’t have a particular feel for any of them. The cinematography, from Rasmus Videbaek, is flat and colorless, and it makes the sets look cheap and flimsy. At a trim 95 minutes, the movie is always in a hurry to get somewhere, but we never linger long enough to get a real sense of place, even though some of its locations, like the mountaintop command base that the Man in Black—whose real name, incidentally, is Walter—and his minions inhabit, or the rustic village where Roland and Jake take shelter, are intriguing enough to be worth poking around awhile. The story is a journey at heart, but the movie keeps rushing to the next destination.
Even if you haven’t been following the behind-the-scenes reports of The Dark Tower’s own tumultuous journey to the screen, it’s easy to spot the hallmarks of a troubled production—Taylor appears to have gone through puberty in between principal photography and reshoots, so that his voice drops an octave from one scene to the next, and sometimes one shot to the next. But the movie would have been better as a shaggy, off-the-rails mess than the gutted husk as which it’s ended up. Elba nails the necessary mixture of gravitas and knowing camp; you believe him as both a mythic avenger and a fish out of water who puzzles at the contents of a Manhattan hot dog. But McConaughey’s matter-of-fact evil—he can kill his enemies, with the lone exception of Roland, with a wave of his hand, or by simply telling them to “stop breathing”—reads more like the indifference of a check-cashing movie star, and the movie can’t decide whether it wants to treat Jake as an awestruck boy or a sullen teen.
Although the writing has been on the wall for months about The Dark Tower’s not-goodness, plans appear to be proceeding apace for a TV spinoff: To quote a line from the trailers that didn’t end up in the film, you can’t stop what’s coming. And perhaps TV is the place now for sprawling sagas like this one, where you need time to soak up the texture of its many worlds without having to hurtle headlong toward an apocalyptic endgame. But it’s possible for a movie to hint at things outside the frame, to sketch just enough of a place to let our minds fill in the gaps. The Dark Tower manages it on a few occasions, as when Roland and Jake explore an alien world that’s littered with the detritus of eons-old theme parks. Is this a future Earth that exists at the same time as the present one, or a separate society that independently developed roller coasters on its own timeline? But the movie’s empty spaces mostly end up a blur, like exits breezed past as you zip down an endless, undistinguished highway. It gets where it’s going fast enough, but you don’t feel like you’ve traveled anywhere at all.