The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining are a trio of renowned Stephen King titles turned to film. And they are also leading exhibits for the Stephen King “Magical Negro theory,” the idea that a lone black character is at the behest of white characters and protagonists by whom he’s surrounded. This black character provides deus ex machina-like, out-of-nowhere talents and abilities that often go unexplained or are derived from nonsensical means.
Thirty-five minutes in, I’m realizing that The Dark Tower is probably about to be added to this list as well.
After a little over an hour and a half, the credits roll for The Dark Tower and the best thing I can think is, “OK ... and?” It could have been so much better, or so much worse. That may be the biggest indictment of the latest movie premiere based on a Stephen King title. The 95 minutes of screen time, directed by Nikolaj Arcel (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), burdens itself with so much action that it may have left a lot of its brilliance on the cutting-room floor for no reason other than an arbitrary run time.
The Dark Tower hinges its narrative on a young boy, Jake Chambers, played by relative newcomer Tom Taylor. Jake’s artistic ability is overshadowed only by his behavioral and psychological problems, amplified by his unsteady home life, which includes a frustrated stepfather filling the shoes of a dad killed in the line of duty, and who’s angry that he’s playing second fiddle in his marriage to a son who seems to be living in a world of complete imagination.
Fortunately for Jake, a series of events proves that his visions are more than make-believe as he’s whisked away into another dimension. Our protagonist must now find his way in a world where the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, played by Idris Elba (even though the character was a white man in the book), is on a revenge-driven quest to kill his mortal enemy, the manifestation of evil, “the Man in Black,” played by Matthew McConaughey.
Roland must use his keen marksmanship while Jake hones his vision-driven psychic abilities, referred to as “shining,” in order to stop the Man in Black from destroying the Dark Tower, which guards all worlds from the darkness that threatens to endanger all living beings.
Throughout the movie, the exchange between Elba and McConaughey takes up most of the narrative space. It makes you wonder why Jake’s character is needed at all. It’s not until key points in the plot that you realize that without Jake and his burgeoning abilities, Roland would be lost and fairly hopeless because he is destitute and fighting a losing battle.
Although all the actors pull their weight, Elba, the seemingly best bet for a black James Bond, does his best rough, weathered-soldier impression as he displays his trademark squint and shoots his way through scenes.
Elba spends most of his time as the only African-American character, co-starring for about five minutes with Dennis Haysbert (24, Dear White People, all those AllState commercials), who fills the shoes of Roland’s father. Once the elder Deschain is murdered by the Man in Black, the Gunslinger’s tunnel visioned mission is clear. The rest of the movie, Elba’s sole ability is found in his ability to never miss his mark.
McConaughey’s charm stays holstered for the bulk of the film, whereas his charisma does not. Evil and smooth; it works.
Despite the actors, their characters are flat and notably monotone. The Gunslinger always shoots and kills, and the Man in Black, the embodiment of evil, is evil. Any character outside of the main three is forgettable even if useful to the story. Any diversity in casting is relegated to extras set-dressing, and very few characters of color have more than a scene or two, destined to die helplessly in a fight with the antagonist or his minions for little to no narrative gain.
Now, where the movie falls flat is in world-building and plot. As the movie opens, we see the motivation for the antagonist destroying the Dark Tower; his method for doing so, harvesting the mental ability of children, is what puts him on the path of hunting Jake. However, it’s all kept at surface level. The movie definitely could have spent more time in exposition surrounding the Man in Black, his methods and motivation, as well as the conditions in which he kept the children he’d previously obtained.
The world the Gunslinger inhabited is also rich with scenery and a unique set of wardrobe that is reminiscent of what the Steampunk Movement would have looked like if it were based in America’s Western era.
The story also moves so quickly, you wonder what might have been left out. Scenes change from day to night so rapidly without explanation that you can’t help thinking you missed something. The story falls flat in the studio’s edit bay.
Across the board, The Dark Tower delivers an adequate, competent, end-of-summer action flick, albeit devoid of any satisfying depth. Unfortunately, that puts the film in danger of falling into the mediocre category of films based on works by Stephen King and out of the top tier of well-regarded King cinema alongside titles such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Stand by Me. Fortunately, like many of the author’s adapted movies, it will play just fine on a lazy Saturday afternoon on basic cable. It will also make that list of quintessential “Magical Negro” cinema.