The Dark Tower (Arcel; 2017)

The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen.  The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen.  Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.

The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist.  We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely.  Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19.  His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy.  Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours.  Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.

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Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting.  Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy.  Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it.  Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.

Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower.  The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette.  Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement.  The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.

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As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse.  The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever.  The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula.  Character motivations are non-existent.  Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes?  Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that?  What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed?  Hell if anyone knows.  What is a Gunslinger for that matter?  A guy with guns as far as I can tell.  Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic.  Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment.  The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.

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I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books.  However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.

Final verdict:  With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss.  It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare.  If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action.  Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no.  And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film?  That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.

Doctor Strange (Derrickson; 2016)

Scott Derrickson is a director that you probably have not heard of before unless you are a true horror movie aficionado.   Previously, he’s brought us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, both Sinister movies, and the film which probably got him this gig, Deliver Us From Evil.  That is not a resume you’d expect from the director of a Marvel film, and particularly not from someone with the unenviable job of giving us another origin story movie which has to not only keep up Marvel’s now high standards and introduce an entire facet of the Marvel Universe which up until now we hadn’t seen – the mystical, multi-dimensional world (Asgard not withstanding, as that’s been explained away by weird science).  Derrickson was handed a tall order with Doctor Strange, and he does an admirable, if not quite incredible, job.

If you’re not familiar with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), well that’s what the movie is about, so I won’t spoil much for you, but he is a character who was established in 1963 – the same year as the X-Men – and has been the Marvel Universe’s resident Sorcerer Supreme for most of that time.  His adventures center on keeping mystical enemies such as demons, powerful wizards, and extra-dimensional threats at bay.  The other dimensions of the Marvel Universe, as well as magic, are the most confusing and unfleshed out bits of their lore, as you are literally dealing with the infinite.  So outside of a few integral characters and places which appear time and time again, the writers really have no rules to follow or norms to work with.  It does mean limitless room for creativity, yes, but it also means there are no true anchors from which to work with a story.  In this, the film version of Doctor Strange, the other dimensions and extra dimensional threats are left just as vague as they are in the comic source material, but magic seems just a bit better explained, even if there is still a lot of room open for real explanation.

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It’s just like Earth, except nothing like Earth, and you can shift the landscape with no real consequences, except there are consequences.  Makes perfect sense.

There is a lot of good to be said about Doctor Strange, far more good than bad.  The dialogue is witty, sharp, and still natural.  The characters are detailed, true to the source material, and are the source of the strong themes of understanding your connections to the world and where you fit within it.   The pacing is near perfect, there was never a time where boredom set in, nor where I felt I needed things to slow down for a moment. The acting was excellent on all fronts, with a veteran cast giving their all.  Then there are the absolutely astounding visuals.  This film is a thing of pure beauty, from the alien landscapes, to the magical effects, and to the way a certain magical relic is so incredibly well done that a non-living object with no dialogue ends up becoming one of the film’s most entertaining characters.

The writers and Derrickson do an excellent job of showing how magic works in this world, not by giving intricacies of how and why it works, but by showing what it is capable of, how it is learned, and differentiating between different areas of study and focus.  Making a relic is not the same as casting a spell which is not the same as travelling through time and space.  Trying to explain how these things work would be a losing battle, so the film maker’s are intelligent enough to know this and give us just enough to know that they do work, that they have rules, and there is even a sort of “science” to them.

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It’s not the Pythagorean Theorem, but there’s still lots of symbols and symmetry.

Where the movie falls apart, is in its finale, unfortunately.  No spoilers, but in the film’s climax the excellent visuals give way to a hodge podge of undefined, low quality imagery.  The excellent rules set up suddenly don’t seem to matter in any meaningful way, and while the final solution is creative and nothing we’ve seen from a Marvel film before (and, does an excellent job at showing why Doctor Strange is considered one of the most intelligent people in the Marvel Universe), it is given no context to show why Strange’s plan would actually work.  This is the inherent problem with magic in a fictional universe, the authors can too easily make things too fast and loose, too “anything can happen”, and without hard fast rules we lose the context of true stakes.

Doctor Strange keeps up Marvel’s reputation for excellence.  It is a very well written, well acted, and visually astonishing movie.  It has meaningful things to say, as well.  It has some serious missteps, primarily in its finale and also in the way it keeps up the Marvel tradition of not so interesting villains (we need more Lokis, Kingpins, and Killgraves, Marvel), but overall it is a worthy, if not top notch, addition to the Marvel canon.

Rating:  7.8 out of 10