By Michael Phillips 2017-08-18

Chicago Tribune

2 stars

Briskly forgettable, "The Dark Tower" gets 'er done, whatever "'er" is, in under 90 minutes, excluding the end credits. Pretty short in Earth minutes, in other words. For the record we've seen far, far worse movies this summer, "The Mummy" and "Transformers 5" among them. Apologies to Stephen King, author of the eight fantasy novels in the "Dark Tower" realm, but you can shove that "Mummy" right through the portal to Mid-World, where all the villainously bad movies go. "The Dark Tower" isn't one of them. It belongs in Middling-World.

The books' dense alternative-universe mythology has vexed many an adapter in recent years. With several credited screenwriters on the final product, director Nikolaj Arcel's movie looks and feels like a series of cautious, nervous compromises and expository panics.

To little avail, the cast is very good. "The Dark Tower" stars Idris Elba as the Gunslinger, a good man struggling to survive in what's left of his crummy world. His nemesis is a well-dressed sorcerer played by Matthew McConaughey, with a "where's my Lincoln? Isn't this a Lincoln ad?" twinkle in his eye. Both fine actors murmur, methodically, in low tones throughout "The Dark Tower," which doesn't do much for the movie's forward drive.

In a major change from the books, the movie doesn't use the Gunslinger as its entry point or even its protagonist. Back on Earth, in New York City, troubled middle-schooler Jake (Tom Taylor, genial enough) is possessed by visions of the Dark Tower and a man in black and a Western-style gunman in pursuit. He, and we, learn that Manhattan is crawling with demon-y humanoids passing for human. Soon enough Jake finds a portal to Mid-World in an old house in Brooklyn, the last un-gentrified property in the entire borough. Zwoop he goes, through the portal apparently borrowed from "Highlander 2: The Quickening," and from there "The Dark Tower" becomes a bit of a metronome, zwooping back and forth from Mid-Earth to midtown. The sorcerer wants Jake for his own nefarious purposes, because he's a "shine," or a psychic.

The tower's survival, we're told, is the key to the stability of the universe; the sorcerer wants it toppled, so the apocalypse can begin in earnest and the demons swirling just outside the universe proper can move in and mess up the neighborhood. The Gunslinger is the tower's protector. A security guard, basically, only he's armed with pistols forged from the steel of King Arthur's Excalibur (the weapon, not the hotel). King juggles mythologies like a Flying Karamazov Brother. The movie, alas, settles for relatively straight-faced world-building with very little humor, though there's a good scene with Elba's first encounter with New York City hospital staff.

Is the movie good enough to do what it's designed to do? Not really. It's designed as a launching pad for a "Dark Tower" television series, scheduled to star Elba and Taylor. So this is an hour-and-a-half TV pilot; it just happens to be a big summer movie too.

The filmmakers had two choices with this material: One, position "The Dark Tower" as an R-rated splatterfest with Elba as the new Clint Eastwood, in space. This would make some sense, since King acknowledges he borrowed ideas and imagery from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" for his stories. Option two: Go for the PG-13 rating and the Young Adult fiction crowd, and put the teenage boy at the center of things. They went with option two.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, including sequences of gun violence and action).

Running time: 1:34

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