No, I haven't read The Dark Tower books, or The Stand, so with that out of the way, let me start by saying The Dark Tower film won't please every Stephen King fan. That goes without saying. Mild spoilers for The Dark Tower will follow after the jump.
I understand The Dark Tower's entire page count totals out to 4,250 from 7 novels. And, it should be taken into consideration the treatment for the film, written by a total of four screenplay artists, including the film's director, Nikolaj Arcel, was written in at 95-minutes, which equals out to roughly 95 pages, give or take a page or two. This reduction is inherently the issue with many book-to-film adaptations: the films try to hit the high notes of stories otherwise too long to tell in one movie.
The Dark Tower isn't the first film to fail on building upon and increasing the anticipation and love for the book. And, the movie, in all honesty, is actually quite good in it's own right. I won't speak a lot about book/film parallels in the hope that my opinion won't be tarnished by taking stabs at understanding both narratives and chastising one over the other when I've no clue the intricacies of the book's plight and narrative structure.
I'll discuss the film's merits and missteps in trying to kick off a Stephen King cinematic universe, a notion that should, in theory, be an easy feat considering how many recurring characters and locations King has written into his books over his illustrious career. While there are teases to a larger character like The Crimson King, the leading nature of the reference isn't expanded upon in this film. Simply, the audience is to understand a larger threat looms in other places within the universe without ever seeing it. By the end of the film, it becomes clear this was a setup film which had a standalone arc, but was built inherently to move other pieces around on the theoretical chessboard. They learned nothing from Iron Man 2, apparently.
The film's narrative, how we're introduced to characters, and where those characters are at in their prospective journies reminds me a lot of how No Country for Old Men dropped audiences into the plot beats of both the before, as well as the present, understanding who the characters are at by the time we get to see them, but not explaining how they exist. I hope that makes sense... While the film serves as an origin story to Jake Chambers, the young protagonist of the film, it's Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba who are left relatively unknown to the audience, save for a couple of flashbacks in Jake's dreams. This can make the film confusing to some, while I took the perspective of getting on board with not needing to know too much about the Gunslinger and his enemy in favor of learning the "here and now" of the story as a whole.
This will surely divide audiences as they view the film. While the movie does have a definitive character arc for Jake, and to a lesser extent Roland(Elba), the universe as a whole feels teased and untouched at the same time. The only real connection I made to other King novels was the presence of a roller coaster ride named "Pennywise", a blatant nod to the lead character in King's novel It, as well as explicit references to The Shining. There are innumerable references found within The Dark Tower that make direct reference to nearly all of King's novels. Eagle-eyed and in-the-know fans will absolutely spot more than I did. Just look at pretty much every detail in the background and you'll find some cool stuff.
While I found the story quite good, it's a quiet one. There's plenty of world-building, and it's not an explicit information dump on audiences. You get to see creatures and experience the multiverse in a way that's inherent to young Jake, a boy who has only ever seen another world in his nightmares. We experience the world the same way Jake does in that he has a lot of questions, and few answers he will find throughout the entire narrative structure of the film. His quiet demeanor speaks as if to soak up everything he's seeing, as this is obviously a parallel to the audience's role when watching a film. Also, the horn... the horn. Yeah...
Rasmus Videbæk, cinematographer of The Dark Tower, manages to capture transformative beats for characters in tight, well-framed shots, which indicate his understanding of "moments" and how to provide further psychological meaning to scenes. The strongest images within the film, in my opinion, are the moments where characters have to decide their fates, or make decisions that'll alter the course of action in the narrative. While there are times when the cinematography feels formulaic, in places like shots where settings are established or frenetic action scenes, the power of his cinematography lies within those intimate, closely emotional moments.
I will say that I was very confused at the presence of two incredibly out of focus shots of the two stars in separate scenes. McConaughey's mean to be the focal point for audiences in an A-B shot, but the background behind him is in focus as he delivers a monologue. It leaves his features soft, and it was distracting to me (as I consider that kind of mistake something you learn during your first film). The same can be said for the shot of Elba in that the shot was a close-up and the background was in focus.
Narratively, there was no reasoning. The focus of both shots were for the characters to deliver monologue, and nothing inherently interesting was happening in the background. Also, there was no implied psychological meaning in having both characters out of focus in these shots. It seemed, to me, to be flubs in filming that ended up being used in the theatrical cut, for some reason.
Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, and Jackie Earle Haley residing from within the same narrative is an interesting affair. In all honesty, the least of which is Haley, whom I've come to love from his rendition of Rorschach in Watchmen. The tonal aspects from within the wardrobe didn't do Haley many favors. However, he's sniveling, conniving, and spineless, and it works so well next to the powerful yet subtly terrifying McConaughey's "Man in Black". McConaughey has always been a powerful player. His earlier films hinted at a brooding, introverted style that the early 2000's did him no favors in showcasing. For every A Time to Kill or The Lincoln Lawyer, there's a Ghosts of Girlfriends Past or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. His version of the "Man in Black" is the former. A powerhouse of indifference and hatred of mankind, McConaughey is amazing in this role. He terrifies in every scene, and I'm never quite sure what he's capable of until I'm assured he's completely evil.
Tom Taylor's(pictured) "Jake Chambers" is a child with gravitas, suffering, and introspection, often turning inward rather than seemingly trying to talk about his nightmares in the fear of sounding crazy to his family. Once he does finally open up, he's looked at as insane, and his suspicions come to life when his reality is revealed to be one of many. Taylor was quite good and had the strongest emotional arc within the narrative, going through a range of emotions throughout.
Idris Elba is a bona fied star, though he's had larger emotional arcs in other films. By the time we reach Elba's Gunslinger, he's battle-hardened and introspective(beginning to pick up on this as a thematic element, yet?). Elba is one heck of a man, easy to look at, and oh, boy, that voice. I look forward to any time I get to see him be a bad ass on-screen, and he's an interesting guy in real life, as well. The Gunslinger is given a secondary arc in the film, and I'm still unsure if that was a wise decision. I really appreciate what he did for the character, and I feel like the script underutilized Elba's character and his skill as a powerful dramatic actor.
I'm divided on the editing style The Dark Tower displays. At once, it throws me for a loop in the timing. While in a fever-pitch, Jake's dreaming turns into an inter-dimensional reality(the film isn't as confusing as that phrase, I promise). The way in which the bombardment of images hit me, I actually thought I'd witnessed the first breakdown of a digital film file. I genuinely thought the movie broke and we were about to be graced with house lights and an apology for the abrupt stoppage of the film. It was a really cool moment that'll stick with me for some time. It was an excellent moment in editing where the editor didn't give me what I anticipated.
Secondly, the action sequences in the film are far too tight, and this type of editing is the type I've rallied against as a cinematographer. The gun fights and combat are shot with a telephoto lens, which flattens and pulls images close to the perceived frame audiences are viewing the film from. While the editing of these scenes is masterful, TV shows like Daredevil and movies like Ong-Bak:Thai Warrior are still far superior in the way they shot and edited their action, in a pulled-back, wide-angle style where choreography trumps camera and editing cheats. I do not enjoy tight editing and punch-cut, shoot-cut editing styles. This should have began and ended with the Bourne films, though it hasn't.
I feel the overall sound profile of the film was okay, though not much of it was as memorable for me as were the sound of the Gunslinger's bullets. They had a distinct sound that was, for lack of a better description, meatier tonal quality than other movie bullet sounds. As That 1 Guy says so famously, the bullet sound "packs a whallop". It's a song that I like with a funky bassline. (Click his name to enjoy the tune, completely unrelated to this review.)
I will say, I don't spend a lot of time developing an understanding of the loudness or accuracy of the sound, much to the chagrin of my buddy Kong, the best sound designer I know. So, take my opinion about the sound work with a grain of oats in your yogurt, you little hipster, you.
Developed and scored by Junkie XL himself, Tom Holkenborg, I was actually a little unimpressed with the score. At times, it seemed cliche, and other moments, nonexistent. With a film as weird as The Dark Tower, all it's moving parts, dimensional jumps, and monsters, Holkenborg dialed in a fairly safe and uneventful score. With his work on Batman v. Superman (with help from Hans Zimmer, of course) and Deadpool in the bag of his newly began film score career, this was a score that blended well enough within the background, but made no waves of it's own. Compared to the trailer for the new remake of King's It showing before the feature, Holkenborg's score lacked a distinct sonic tonality.
The trailer for It told me right away that hissing violin strings were going to be a prominent player in weirding me the fuck out when I see the film next month. In layman's terms, The Dark Tower sounded like a very basic fantasy-action film score. Deadpool and BvS both had the glitchy, jagged sound Holkenborg's musical persona is known for, and which was noticeably absent from this film. Points of merit can be applied for a score that doesn't detract from a film's imagery, as I have known some scores to be overwhelming in comparison to the film's they're made for. However, The Dark Tower could have benefited greatly from a sonic musical profile of its own.
I had a hard time quantifying how I felt about the movie at first. It's busy setting up references to Pet Semetary, It, Misery, The Shining, and other films as part of the universe, as it should. The film talks of the multiple realms, etc. and with efficiency. What the film really suffers from is a lack of character depth in favor of world building and foreshadowing King's other works(and potentially films based on those in the future). It's literally the same model Iron Man 2 failed so successfully with back in 2010; it's beholden to the promises of other avenues within the film's universe.
It tries very much to make you like it through jokes, and I did laugh (or needed a laugh after heavy scenes). With the immense amount of references, though, the film became less focused on giving the audience a compact, tight story in favor of giving them a little of this, a little of that, as per the constant foreshadowing and talking of things not happening on-screen. It stands to reason that Pennywise will reference the tower in some fashion in the upcoming remake of It, and how explicit the references are remains to be heard or seen.
I'm actually okay with it, honestly, and can forgive the lack of concise direction. I liked The Dark Tower simply because it's a tightly acted and shot film with perfect casting and strong storytelling convictions in place like, as you might foresee the word I'm about to say: introspection. The film made me think a lot about King's work, and though the tower itself and its surrounding seven universes remind me of Yggdrasil of Norse legend, the film didn't at all suffer from feeling like I've seen and heard the story before. I enjoyed my time inside the realm of The Dark Tower.