Have you ever put a movie on in the background as you did dishes, or balanced your checkbook, or cleaned your house? You get the broad strokes of the plot. You laugh at the occasional moment. But you're not invested in the journey. Well, that's the confounding feeling of watching Dark Tower in theaters. The long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King's adored novels is rushed, puzzling, and without resonance. And at the end, you don't even have chores checked off your to-do list to show for it.
Though the advertising would have you believe it centers on the battle between the villainous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and the noble Gunslinger (Idris Elba), the script (penned by a small army that includes Akiva Goldsman and director Nikolaj Arcel) actually focuses on troubled adolescent Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who suffers from terrible nightmares about a far flung world where gifted children are loaded into a maybe life-sucking machine that treats them like bullets fed into a gun aimed at the titular tower. If the tower falls, a world of monsters will be unleashed on the worlds of men. Jake's incredible psychic power means he's the perfect bullet to be fired, so the Man In Black is hunting him down. Jake's only defense seems to be the last Gunslinger, who has lost his taste for the battle.
This choice makes the PG-13 movie feel like a YA novel, complete with school bullies, parents who just don't understand, and a fantastical adventure of monsters, magic and heroism. But Jake is a dud of a protagonist, one whose defining character trait appears to be looking startled. As the film sprints past lingo like "shine" (psychic ability) and "Gunslingers" (knights who protect the tower), The Dark Tower leaves no room to actually develop its characters, who are less sketched out than the scribbled drawings on Jake's wall.
McConaughey brings some verve, but little bite to the role of the devil with ambiguous powers. He swaggers about spitting commands like "stop breathing" and "hatred," using mind control to spread fear and pain everywhere he goes. When it's convenient to the plot, The Man In Black also has the ability to set people aflame by touch. And hey, also he's telekinetic, and can hurl glass, catch bullets, and pitch them back as if his fingers are revolvers. It's not that any of these traits are unbelievable in a world of child-snatching ratmen, house-guarding demons and dimension-jumping portals, just the film lays them out so haphazardly it's jarring.
The same is the case with Gunslinger. Just one line of dialogue could have established Elba's brooding cowboy as an ancient guardian that not only possesses incredible sharp shooting abilities, but also had healing powers, and maybe the power to pass on his gifts. Instead, such exposition is fired off in glancing shots of clunky dialogue. Watching the movie, you can't help but feel you've missed a key scene, a puzzle piece that'd make everything click together.
Perhaps those who've read the books won't struggle to make sense of this mythos as I did, but I can't imagine they'll be entertained. The Dark Tower is profoundly bland; chiseled down to a lean-yet-tedious 95 minutes, it races through plot points, burning through minor characters who have little purpose before meeting grisly comeuppances, and leaving no room to feel the gravity of presumably big moments.
Characters die. Children are sacrificed to a grim cause. Every plane of human existence is threatened. And yet The Dark Tower feels boring and weightless. Fans who already have an attachment to Roland and Walter (the Gunslinger and the Man in Black) might have an advantage. But newcomers to the story will be tortured by confusing ambiguities and a groaning tone that makes and every minute feel like thirty.
The lone highlight is Elba, who battles back against a putridly limp script to bring some excitement and humor into the film. While the action scenes are a jumble of poorly covered stunts and made-for-TV movie quality CGI, the dashing British actor is a nonetheless a Gunslinger to behold. But he's at his best as a fish-out-of-water in modern New York City, where he scowls over "hot dogs" ("What breed is it?") and sniffs over a doctor's advice to rest, brushing her off with assurance he's "stronger than most," and a curt payment with a silver token. Aside from this, it's not darkness and fire as much as numbness and ire over a summer movie that's lacking in spectacle, emotion or thrills.
Dark Tower opens August 4.