The Dark Tower review: A baffling tower of pulp

The Stephen King inspired film looks like a cluttered 95-minute trailer

The Dark Tower
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Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Cert: PG
Genre: Action
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey
Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins

What is this thing, exactly? Event movies have been known to shake off pre-release outrage, suspicion and hostility. (Sometimes negative publicity encourages the curious to buy a ticket. “Hey, how bad can it be?”) But the last response a studio wants is bafflement.

The film that bears the same name as a popular Stephen King series has been kicking up just that level of confusion. Nobody seems clear if it's a sequel, a prequel, an interquel or an adaptation. Idris Elba plays a character nicknamed "The Gunslinger". So, it's a sort of Western. Matthew McConaughey (who reminds me of somebody here) is a demonic entity called The Man in Black. So, there's an apocalyptic strain to it. Right? Never mind what it is. How good is it? Will we enjoy making sense of it?

Hunk of pulp

Ask somebody who's seen the thing. On the evidence of the 95-minute trailer, The Dark Tower could turn out to be a perfectly tolerable hunk of pulp. Obviously, you get only hints of the plot. There is a bit of mildly exhilarating violence, but the spoilers are kept to a minimum. It seems as if young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), child of typically unhappy King parents, is getting visions of a huge edifice at the centre of the universe. This Dark Tower offers protection from monsters that lie waiting in an adjacent dimension.

The Man in Black (who really does remind me of someone) is recruiting children with particular gifts that will help him destabilise the enchanted building and allow the beasts to advance. Look out, Jake. Donald Trump has his "fire and fury". The Man in Black (who is it, now?) is fonder of "darkness and fire". The source of his malignity is not explained, but I'm sure it will be revealed when we actually see the movie.


I'm making a funny. This really is it. For all we know, the producers always intended Nikolaj Arcel's film – previously in the hands of JJ Abrams and Ron Howard – to clock in at the length of a German cartoon about talking turtles, but the unexpected brevity does the epic narrative no favours. It would be wrong to call The Dark Tower economic. That would imply a coherent ordering of events.


What we have instead is a cluttered taster menu for a restaurant we're left with no desire to more fully investigate. Half ideas spring busily from random directions. It sounds as if "The Gunslinger's" pistol may be made of similar stuff to King Arthur's Excalibur. Poor Dennis Haysbert barely has a cameo as Elba's doomed father. Endless references to other King stories – a St Bernard, balloons, Rita Hayworth – are there merely to keep fans of "Easter Eggs" awake.

The Dark Tower is not the worst film of the summer. It's not even the worst film of the week. But it does feel like the most misconceived release of the season. A sense of awful panic hangs over it. Sadly, that panic has delivered a movie that will satisfy neither fans of the books (too loosely connected) nor those unfamiliar with the source (far too much mythology is left unexplained).

No great blame should attach to Idris Elba or young Tom Taylor. The former brandishes almost enough charisma to vivify a half-written part. The latter is satisfactorily frightened. The scenes with those two actors in contemporary New York summon pleasant reminders of John Connor and the T-800 trying to make sense of LA in Terminator 2.

McConaughey has a less happy time. Hang on, I know who he reminds me of. The big, serious voice? The neat suit? The cheekbones? The fire emerging from his sleeves? It's Gob, the idiot magician from Arrested Development. Time for another career readjustment, McConaughey.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist