What actually is 'The Dark Tower'? Critics aren't impressed

Early reviews give the Stephen King adaptation a thumbs-down as a troubled history and unclear marketing leaves us wondering if it should be a movie at all.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

What is the Dark Tower?

That's one of the burning questions at the heart of Stephen King's epic series of eight fantasy novels. But it's also a question that could be levelled at the film adaptation of the same name, which hits movie theatres in the US tomorrow and has already confused critics.

Obviously, King aficionados will know all about the genre-hopping Dark Tower saga. But if you take the film as a stand-alone entity, non-King fans might be scratching their heads. With a couple of weeks to go, I feel like the marketing hasn't clearly conveyed what "The Dark Tower" actually is.

I mean, it looks cool -- starting with Idris Elba's quickdraw gunslinging and Matthew McConaughey's slithering bad guy -- but what is it? Is it a sci-fi movie? A western? A young adult fantasy with a teenage hero? Or all of the above?

I'm not saying the trailers should tell us everything about the film. On the contrary, trailers often spoil a story months before it even gets near theatres. No, what I'm talking about is the tone of the movie... or at least a hint of who it's aimed at.

Early reviews suggest the film tries to compact the saga's sprawling weirdness into 95 minutes, and comes up short. The Metacritic score, which aggregates reviews, languishes at 39 out 100. Hollywood Reporter, for example, says "The Dark Tower" will "likely disappoint many serious fans and leave other newbies underwhelmed". Most positively, Variety calls it a "glittering trash pile of déjà vu action pulp".

Reports suggest a troubled shoot, with baffled audiences at test screenings, extensive reshoots and whispers that director Nikolaj Arcel had been sidelined. The release date was shunted back 6 months, and reviews were restricted to the day before release -- never a good sign.

Of course, this extra work could have been just what was needed to shape "The Dark Tower" into a movie that live up to its much-loved source material. Fans will have to make up their own minds.

I'm keeping an open mind. Even if the marketing campaign hasn't quite figured out how to sell the film, that does at least mean we're going into it with some of the mystery intact. And the reaction to films such as "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" shows that even the messiest of fantasy blockbusters can strike a chord with audiences, especially when they're established fans. I love a mess, as long as it's a big, glorious mess -- "Doctor Strange" and "Valerian" are great examples. 

"The Dark Tower" could still be the beginning of a sprawling new Harry Potter-esque cinematic franchise. But going on early reactions, it seems like maybe this shouldn't have been a movie at all. In the 10 years it's taken to bring the work to the screen, the media landscape has changed. The place for such sprawling and ambitious stories seems to be on television, where hours and hours can be devoted to exploring the nuances of a lengthy and involved story. I can't help thinking of "The Mortal Instruments", a series of novels adapted into a movie that flopped before the story successfully found a home on TV as "Shadowhunters".

Perhaps "The Dark Tower" will prove to be the foundation for a towering franchise after all -- it just might not be on the big screen.

"The Dark Tower" looms into theatres in the US on August 4, Australia on August 17 and the UK on August 18.

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