Friday , 14 May 2021

King’s The Dark Tower rises to the occasion – review

“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.” So begins the first chapter of master of horror Stephen King’s epic eight novel series, The Dark Tower.  How does one even begin to tackle such an epic, sprawling, journey that spans time and space and bring it to the big screen? As this Gore4er hasn’t read the books (though he has read many of King’s stellar works), and only has a basic knowledge of their narrative, this review is based on the film alone. No doubt, fans of King’s acclaimed series will have their own critical opinions.

The Dark Tower itself is a massive structure at the center of the universe, protecting it and all of its inhabitants from darkness. The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is evil personified, a sorcerer with the power of persuasion, which he uses to bring death and destruction wherever he goes. His primary goal is to bring down the Tower by harnessing the psychic abilities of children plucked from their homeworlds, thus bringing about a new age of darkness and fire which he can rule over along with his monsters and demons. Enter Jake, a boy living in New York City, whose psychic abilities are off the chart, making him especially desirable for exploitation from the Man in Black. Jake is plagued by visions of other worlds, which ultimately leads him to one of those, Mid-World, home to the Gunslinger, another figure from Jake’s visions. This Gunslinger, who goes by the name of Roland (Idris Elba) is especially strong and has a magical ability to heal. His lifelong pursuit of seeking revenge against the Man in Black now has an important ally in Jake as the two travel between worlds to stop this evil entity once and for all while preventing him from using Jake to bring down the Dark Tower.

The Dark Tower is an intriguing mix of action, mystery, sci-fi and horror. In fact, it resembles in more ways than one another film series, Don Coscarelli’s beloved Phantasm franchise. Like Phantasm, The Dark Tower blends sci-fi and horror, though it’s much more linear and less dreamlike. The Man in Black bears similarities to Angus Scrimm’s the Tall Man, a devilish figure utilizing portals to travel between other dimensions and planets and has an army of minions at his behest. The Gunslinger reminds one of Reggie Bannister’s twin-barreled shotgun-toting ice cream man, Reggie, in a never-ending quest to take down his adversary. And Jake, like Phantasm‘s Michael, is haunted by terrifying dreams and is witness to strange occurrences he can’t get anyone to believe. Phantasm is one of horror’s more original and entertaining franchises, spanning five films with the release of last year’s Phantasm: Ravager, while King refers to his epic Dark Tower series as his “magnum opus”.

Idris Elba is stalwart, steadfast and sturdy as the Gunslinger, who kills with his heart and not his gun. While there will be those ‘fans’ who may disagree, Elba is perfectly cast on the side of good as Roland. (Maybe he’ll suit up as Bond, which he’d kill as, after Daniel Craig moves on, and get more fanboys in a tizzy.) Elba plays the role straightlaced throughout, tough but never tender, but he also adds moments of humor when dealing with the customs and conveniences of modern-day NYC, like when trying a hot dog for the first time and asking Jake what breed. Relative newcomer, Tom Taylor, does a great job as the main protagonist, Jake, conveying a sense of wonder, anguish and loss, as well as heroism, as he tends to run towards, as opposed to away from danger, like his firefighter father before him. McConaughey, normally the ‘good guy’ in films, is totally believable as the cruel and remorseless, Man in Black, bringing with him a sense of danger wherever he roams. Also worth mentioning is the lovely Kathryn Winnick (Lagertha on Vikings) as Jake’s mom. She brings a lot of heart to her limited role, and we hope to see a lot more of what she can bring to the screen in the future.

Sharp-eyed fans of Stephen King should be on the lookout for a number of easter eggs and homages to the author’s past works. Jake’s extraordinary psychic powers are referred to as a ‘shine’, just like young Danny Torrance’s in The Shining. There’s a brief glimpse of a poster of Rita Hayworth, right out of The Shawshank Redemption. There’s also the number, 1408, for one of the portals, another reference to a King short story and film. Stephen King is everywhere these days, with the currently airing Spike TV series based on his The Mist, and next month’s filmed adaptation of his mammoth novel, It, hitting the big screen. Like The Dark Tower, it will be interesting to see how they manage to condense such a wealth of material down to a feature length film. Also, as the second season of Stranger Things hits Netflix in October, King’s influence over that show is readily apparent as well.

The Dark Tower is directed by Danish filmmaker, Nikolaj Arcel. who co-wrote the screenplay with Akiva Goldsman and others. Goldsman is an Oscar winning screenwriter for A Beautiful Mind, who has also adapted iconic genre works like I, Robot and I Am Legend for the big screen, along with The Da Vinci Code and this year’s Rings sequel. Bringing King’s sprawling series to theaters could not have been an enviable task, especially after so many iterations and studios were involved over the years (Ron Howard was set to direct at one point, and still serves as a producer). Intended as a jumping off point to an NBC series and back to another big screen venture, those plans subsided to what we have today, a stand alone film serving as a sequel of sorts to King’s novels. What, if anything, comes next is anyone’s guess. Having no preconceived notions going into the film, this Gore4er enjoyed The Dark Tower immensely and hopes the story can continue in some way, shape or form. Certainly, an evil figure who threatens to reign down ‘fire and fury’ and brings nothing but darkness and hate has parallels to the tyrant-in-chief here in America today. Stephen King, a vocal critic of the fossil fool in the White House, shows once again how timely his works are, no matter when they were written. Whether The Dark Tower or next month’s It will be included amongst King’s best filmed works, alongside The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary and The Shawshank Redemption remains to be seen. But one thing we can count on – they won’t be the last.

— review by Brian de Castro

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