“The Dark Tower” may be the best example so far of unskilled labor in Hollywood. None of the characters click, nothing feels innovative or interesting, and the story is in no way compelling.
Not so much adapted from Stephen King’s genre-blending 4,000 page novel series as arbitrarily borrowing from it, the film gives us little more than a pistol-toting good guy shooting a lot at a supernatural bad guy who can swat bullets away like so many gnats. Danish director Nikolaj Arcel is credited with co-writing the screenplay using three other listed scribes, but the final draft could have been made by a kitchen blender with its blades turned from Stir to Ice Crush.
The story begins with New Yorker Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an 11-year-old savant who has troubling visions of a threatening parallel universe. His countless sheets of pencil sketches of the realm and its inhabitants suggest a fine future as a graphic novel artist, but fate has other plans. With Manhattan trembling under earthquakes, he believes that he is on the way to understanding why.
Sadly for Jake, so does the evil overlord of his nightmare kingdom, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). He dresses in black and has black hair on top of it and casts a lot of shade with every glance to show just how bad he is. Black — or Man, or whatever — sets out to pull Jake away from his beleaguered, recently widowed mother (Katheryn Winnick) and unpleasant stepdad like a lassoed calf. This would be the latest abduction in his ongoing roundup of smart, young Earth kids, a weird vanishing epidemic that seems to get zero news coverage.
Black wants Jake because his evil techno-mystical lair across the universe uses a device that converts the brain power of his enslaved Earth children into a sort of lightning bolt aimed at destroying the savior of everything, the Dark Tower.
Let this be said for the movie: It gives us what the title promises. There is a tall obelisk that we see repeatedly from a very long distance, at least the portion that rises above the clouds. Why it’s there, how it was built, what sort of creatures occupy it and who runs the co-op board are never addressed.
A quick title card at the opening tells us the structure “defends us from darkness,” which seems to be the harbinger of unspeakable evil dangers, like bar-closing time.
Jake enters a back hole portal thing in a decrepit abandoned mansion that somehow has not been turned into residential property, transporting himself to Black’s home planet where he meets the Gunslinger (Idris Elba). He is the heroic enemy of Black, though his powers of combat have dwindled considerably, and he looks mopey about it.
Even though the Gunslinger’s antique revolvers are comically large and fire almost constantly (I think there is a subtle subtext here), Black can swat away his bullets like bugs. In return he flings flaming “magics” back at the Gunslinger, without lasting effect, so their battle is a long-running standoff. At one point, Black says that no matter who wins, the universe will collapse on its own schedule anyway, so why bother? Why indeed?
The film moves at random from action-movie world to King’s scary place. It’s a bizarre amalgam of references to King’s other work, including “The Shining,” “The Stand” and, I think, “Children of the Corn,” adding up to the worst mashup of fantasy, sci-fi and Western since “Cowboys and Aliens.”
Elba and McConaughey are admirable talents utterly out of place, their entire characterizations residing in crazy-eyes glares and costuming.
Elba looks good in a black leather duster and is admirably committed to making this work, but he’s not granted 5 percent of the comprehensible meaning that Ian McKellen is given to work with as Magneto in the “X-Men” films. He remains perversely mysterious.
Meanwhile, his co-star’s role has about as much back story as the rampaging Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in “Ghostbusters.” He visits Earth to be diabolical, mind-controlling humans into dreadful fates with commands like “stop breathing” and “hate.” I would have preferred to see a film where he tries to command students at a school who rise up and kick him to smithereens.
I hope we could be so lucky. When “The Dark Tower” ends on a pause in the galaxy-spanning battle, setting up another chapter to come, it’s less a promise than a threat.
The Dark Tower
★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action.