A person who’s only glancing familiar with Steven King’s Dark Tower novels—me—can’t make a wholly accurate prediction of whether or not the film adaptation, starring Idris Elba as a fantasy-world gunslinger named, simply enough, Gunslinger, will satisfy fans. But given how eagerly awaited this film has been, it’s safe to say that readers who love the series deserve a movie version made with more imagination, and less rote efficiency, than this one.
The picture’s genuinely spooky opening is the best thing about it: A group of children play boisterously in the grassy yard of what looks to be a suburban housing compound. Then a loud buzzer sounds and the children, suddenly looking stiff and haunted, make their way to a large, foreboding structure dangling nearby—kind of like the giant stone head in John Boorman’s Zardoz, but less freaky-looking—where they’re strapped into chairs and zapped with a giant ray.
The lovely fellow behind this exercise in preadolescent terror is Walter, AKA the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a snakelike hipster dude with gleaming skin and pomaded hair who’s bent on destroying the Dark Tower, a monolith that stands at the center of the universe protecting all humankind from evil. The tower’s strength is formidable. But the minds of certain children have powers that could bring it down, and Walter is obsessed with harnessing that power.
Enter Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a New York kid who suffers from debilitating nightmares. He draws the images he sees in his terrible dreams, rendering them in forbidding charcoal tones. His mom (Katherine Winnick) is understandably worried. There’s also a stepdad type who clearly wants him out of the way. (Jake’s father, a firefighter, died a few years back in the line of duty.) Sessions with a shrink don’t seem to help, so mom decides to send Jake to a special “clinic upstate,” which allegedly helps kids with problems like his.
Jake, as we’ve already intuited, is psychic—in the movie’s parlance his gifts are called “the shine.” After ditching the creepy folks who show up to escort him to that surely not-so-nice clinic, he finds his way to an abandoned house in Brooklyn, a place he’s seen in his dreams. From there, he’s transported via a shiny, shimmery portal to another world, one where the Man in Black shows up frequently to bully people with his own mental superpowers. That’s where Jake meets the Gunslinger, who has a personal beef with the Man in Black and wants only to destroy him. The Gunslinger, a crabby, taciturn loner, lets Jake tag along. As it turns out, Jake will have good reason to want revenge on the Man in Black himself.
The adventures of Jake and the Gunslinger take them to a friendly village, where Jake develops a small crush on a cute girl goat-herder, and eventually, via another portal, back to New York. There, the Man in Black stalks them mercilessly. Obviously, a showdown awaits. And before you know it, the whole thing is over.
The Dark Tower is, at the very least, economical, running just a little over 90 minutes. In the end, you can’t feel too unkindly toward the picture. The director, Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel—who co-wrote the screenplay for Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and whose directing credits include the 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair with Alicia Vikander—keeps everything moving with a mechanical studiousness. And the action climax, showcasing some simple but proficient special effects, doesn’t grind you down the way so many of today's blockbuster battles do.
Arcel’s biggest gift, maybe, is that he knows when to stop, and that’s not nothing. It doesn’t hurt that Elba, elegant and understated, makes even the goofiest lines of dialogue believable. But somehow, The Dark Tower should still add up to more: It could use more magic, more dread, a more staggering sense of wonder. It’s wholly inoffensive, but it’s unmemorable too. This is a fantasy that runs like a business.