Jake (Tom Taylor) has been having those dreams again, though nightmares would be more specific. In his sleep, he sees children taken from their everyday lives by a mysterious Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who hooks them up to a machine which channels their psychic energy into a huge beam that shoot many thousands of miles across the sky to hit the massive Dark Tower which seems to have a significance to the universe Jake cannot grasp as of yet. Ever since his father died, he has felt terrible and under siege from strange forces, something he copes with in his drawings, but his mother is growing increasingly concerned for his mental health - especially when those dreams infect his waking life.
Wait a minute, what happened to the Man in Black fleeing across the desert and the Gunslinger following? This was the abortive first try at a version of Stephen King's epic, decades-long attempt to wrangle his mixture of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with Sergio Leone's The Man with No Name, two trilogies that had made a huge impression on him as a young man before he even turned professional author. The results may have been sprawling, undisciplined and digressive, taking in not merely the official eight books in the series but also mentions and whole plotlines in his other works, but they were one of the most ambitious efforts ever staged by a popular writer, and those who loved The Dark Tower were truly devoted to it.
The film was another matter, a project that had been struggling to get off the ground every since the final book had been published, and by the looks of this those issues with wrangling such a vast series had been far from ironed out. To solve the problem, the screenwriters - including director Nikolaj Arcel and producer Akiva Goldsman - opted to make this a sequel to the last novel, for reasons which would constitute a spoiler to explain but had something to do with the power of retelling stories in different variations. Taking this to heart, they picked bits and pieces of what they liked about the most superficial elements, ignored the hefty themes of narrative, and strung them together like a greatest hits highlights package of the source.
This was about as satisfying as you would imagine, and those who were unconverted were baffled what the big deal was, while those who had spent years working their way through the novels wondered what happened to the idea of starting with the first book and making your way to the last. This Dark Tower was not an adaptation of that opener, it was closer to a selective reading of what would look cool on the big screen, but it made for a highly shallow experience which painted the Gunslinger character Roland, played by Idris Elba, as merely yet another superhero in a cinematic realm already overstuffed with them. When the grand finale served up Roland shooting about a million anonymous guys and never missing any of them, it was very hard to care about anything you were seeing, Roland less mythic than cypher.
Elba once again proved audiences were more keen to see him on television than the big screen, but McConaughey was a proper movie star, and you would expect him to fare better, yet this was not the case. He was given even less than his co-star to play with, a one-note all-powerful bad guy whose eventual defeat came out of nowhere, and made one of the great epics of fantasy and horror fiction very small beer indeed. Not helping was that Roland was not even the main character, Jake was, leaving the sense of watching a young adult movie on the level of one of those failed franchises that appeared in the wake of the success of Harry Potter instead of something that, if filmed faithfully, would have been strictly for the adults. This betrayed a lack of confidence in the material, treating The Dark Tower as if it was purely for the kids rather than those audiences with more sophisticated tastes, and King's intimate style on the page which drew you into his meticulously constructed world was left as impersonal would-be blockbuster blandness. With its failure at the box office and a television series set to ignore it altogether, this was a terrible waste of time and opportunity. Music by Junkie XL.