There are two ways a critic can approach a film based on a popular book series: read some or all of the source material beforehand or just go in and experience the movie as a movie. Stephen King has written eight “Dark Tower” novels over 25 years, and now that “The Dark Tower” the movie has arrived — prelude to “The Dark Tower” the TV series — the books’ many partisans are busy parsing what made it into the feature and what got left out.
That’s a fan’s preoccupation, necessary to keep the entertainment-industry culture churning and the profits coming. If, like me, you haven’t read the “Dark Tower” books, the more pressing question is: Will the new film make sense? Is it worth your time?
Yes and no, in that order. Even without having read the books, a reasonably sentient outsider can see what King is up to in his series: interweaving many different elements from the Joseph Campbell playbook into the quest saga to end all quest sagas. There’s a young “chosen” outsider with special powers he only half understands. There’s a conflicted knight-errant and a villain who’s the personification of all evil. There’s an unseen otherworld right next to ours, accessible by a hidden portal, and there’s an ultimate battle between the forces of darkness and light.
We’ve been here many times, in the “Harry Potter” books and “Star Wars” movies, via Narnia and Middle-earth, and all the way back to Arthurian romances and beyond. It’s a great idea to mix it all up and start fresh, and I bet King has a ball with it. But the plain, ironic truth is that the movie itself feels derivative, even generic.
The early scenes are the best, with adolescent New Yorker Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor, appealingly haunted) unable to shake his nightmare visions of a satanic Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and a Dark Tower at the center of the universe. The Man in Black (his name turns out to be Walter) is harnessing the energy of kidnapped children in an effort to bring down the Tower — we are to understand that this would be a very bad thing — and the only person who might stop him is a mysterious Gunslinger (Idris Elba).
Most of the movie is a cat-and-mouse chase between Walter and Jake, whose psychic powers — his “shine” — make him the prophesied savior of mankind. That chase brings the young hero and his new friend the Gunslinger back and forth over the divide between “Mid-World” and our own dimension of “Keystone Earth.” At least on film, jargon is all that distinguishes “The Dark Tower” from every other action-fantasy franchise.
The New York scenes, with Walter’s minions scuttling about wearing human masks over rat-like faces, have the creepy paranoia of a pulp film from the 1970s or ’80s; more than once, I thought of John Carpenter’s under-sung “They Live.” “The Dark Tower” also serves as a central clearing house for Stephen King mythology, with references to “The Shining,” obviously, but also cameo appearances by Cujo the dog, Christine the car, the monsters from “The Mist,” and other creatures under the cultural bed. There are nods to “The Wizard of Oz,” as well, and to Clint Eastwood westerns, the King Arthur legend, and Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”
Director Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”) cobbles all these elements into a cohesive, coherent story, but they barely add up to the sum of their parts; the movie’s an edible hash and little more, and the climactic fight scenes are just nonsense. Elba conveys the conflicted weariness of his knightly sharpshooter and Taylor is spooky and sardonic in the right balance — both actors are slated to reprise their roles in the TV series — but McConaughey is back in slumming mode after a few years in which he actually roused himself to act. The man’s simply too relaxed to be the devil, unless we’re all prepared to go to hell in a Lincoln.
I will say this, though: The movie makes me finally want to test-drive one of the “Dark Tower” novels, if only to see what King himself was able to bring to the party. Maybe that’s been his evil plan all along.
THE DARK TOWER
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel, based on the novels by Stephen King. Starring Tom Taylor, Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 95 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material — whatever that means — including sequences of gun violence and action).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.