The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel


I had high hopes for this one. I read The Dark Tower series as a teenager and have been waiting for an adaptation ever since (it was always my feeling that a TV series would have served the books better than a film, but hey, I’ll take what I can get). Stephen King started writing this series in the 80s and it took him decades to complete what he hoped would be his magnum opus. The idea was to write an epic series akin to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that would serve as the centrepiece of his literary universe, and it is a superb read. The Dark Tower has since been trapped in development hell as different filmmakers from J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard have attempted to bring this extensive, complex narrative to life (with Javier Bardem attached to star at one point). All roads have thus led us here, to Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, a film which sadly leaves this decades-long journey unfulfilled.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed. The Man in Black is Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer who seeks to destroy the Dark Tower, the structure at the centre of the universe protecting all the worlds from the evils outside. The Gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of an ancient order and the only man who can protect the Tower. A young boy called Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has visions of these two and of the Tower, visions that his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and therapist dismiss as dreams brought by the trauma of his father’s death. Believing his visions to be real and determined to learn their meaning, Jake follows them to an abandoned house where he discovers a portal to Mid-World, the world in which the Dark Tower stands, and there meets Roland. The Gunslinger takes the boy under his wing and together they must pursue the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the Tower and bringing all the worlds to ruin.

Having been in development for so long and subjected to reshoots following negative test screenings, I think most people who watch this film will be able to tell that this is the work of a studio. It is business-like in its approach and never takes any chances with the story. In the original book series, you are dropped straight into the desolate, fantastical land of Mid-World and follow a mysterious, morally ambiguous protagonist on an uncertain quest. Here the protagonist is a teenage boy in New York who discovers that he is the key to saving the universe. We know that he’s troubled because he speaks to psychiatrists and skips school but he has no real personality to speak of. His father is dead, paving the way for Roland to step in as his surrogate father, and he possesses abilities that he does not understand. He isn’t so much a character as he is a plot device, there to take the story wherever the studio feels it has to go and to prompt the exposition wherever the studio feels its needed.

The two best and most strongly defined characters are, not coincidentally, the two who most closely resemble their literary counterparts. Elba’s Roland is a melancholy warrior, haunted by the ghosts of his past, and he brings a strong sense of weight to the role. This is a man who has experienced pain and loss we can hardly fathom and has become cold and numb with time. The humanity that his surrogate son is supposed to inspire never quite hits home but I’m inclined to lay the blame with the script rather than the actor. McConaughey meanwhile hams it up as the Man in Black, but never so much that we cannot take him seriously as a villain. He walks that fine line between being eccentric and menacing and hits just the right balance. Casting these two is far and away the best thing this movie did and anytime these two came together, I felt like I was actually watching the Dark Tower movie I had been waiting to see. It makes me sad that their performances could not have been realised with a better script with a greater vision for King’s epic.

Most of the scenes that make up The Dark Tower seem like they were included simply because those are the scenes that you need in this kind of movie. When Jake discovers the portal in the abandoned house and activates it, the house comes alive and attacks him. There’s no build up or even much of a conclusion to this scene, it’s just something that happens and is then forgotten about as soon as it’s over. The movie’s crime isn’t that it’s terrible, but that it’s unimaginative and forgettable. The book series was often dark and strange and, while not all of its ideas worked, one of the things it had that this film did not was vision. The world King built is immense. The characters he created are iconic. The themes he explored are resonant. Here the studio decided to play it safe, making a generic movie with a simplified story, watered-down characters and a non-threatening PG-13 rating. The movie attempts to appease fans of King’s work while still appealing to a wider audience and it fails at both. It’s not as bad as I feared it would be, but it falls short of even my most conservative hopes.

★★

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Cast: (voiced by) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler


American animated movies at their best can be smart, creative and enthralling, but they don’t often treat their audience with the maturity and seriousness that Studio Ghibli’s movies do. This is one of the qualities that I found to be the most impressive in Kubo and the Two Strings, a movie that is absolutely teeming with Ghibli’s influence. As well as being smart, creative and enthralling, Kubo is subtle, complex and poetic. It can be joyful and light-hearted in some moments and then dark and frightening in others. It is a grand, epic adventure but it is also an intimate, bittersweet story. This movie offers Western children an illuminating insight into an entirely different culture while still depicting a story that they can identify as being classically universal: the hero’s journey. I am always astounded when a film can accomplish so many different things at once and can appeal to a great variety of people. Kubo and the Two Strings astounded me.

In ancient Japan Kubo, a one-eyed boy living in a cave with his ill mother, spends his days in the nearby village where he magically manipulates pieces of paper into origami shapes to tell stories. These stories he tells are those of his late father, the legendary samurai warrior Hanzo. Kubo must however leave as soon as the sun starts to set for if he ever stays outside at night, his grandfather the Moon King will find him and come to take his remaining eye. While attending a ceremony where he hopes to speak to his father’s spirit, Kubo stays outside for too long and is found and chased by his mother’s Sisters. Kubo’s mother uses her remaining magic to send Kubo away while she stays behind to fend off the Sisters. Kubo awakens in a desolate place where his only companions are Monkey, a wooden charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle, Hanzo’s samurai apprentice. With their help Kubo must find his father’s lost weapon and armour and use them to defeat the Moon King.

The film throws a lot of weighty material at children but trusts that they are able to handle it and refrains from patronising them. There is on one level an epic quest taking place that takes Kubo to a great many places, both wonderful and scary. The threats he faces are both great (like the colossal skeleton) and menacing (like the chillingly designed Sisters), the obstacles he must overcome are immense and the lessons he must learn are difficult. Thus we also get a deep, profound story of love and loss. With his father gone and his mother slowly fading away, Kubo has never really known what it is to have a family. The loneliness he feels is heartrending in its melancholy, but that makes his strong resilience all the more admirable. He finds this strength not only through his companions but also through the stories of his mother and father. Kubo and the Two Strings is a testament to the power of stories and their capacity to move us, bind us and preserve us.

Laika has done much impressive work in stop-motion animation before in films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, but Kubo outdoes them all. The beautiful colours, the incredible designs and the masterful craftsmanship, these are all employed to astonishing effect in this visually breathtaking film. Kubo warns us on the outset not to blink and I tried my hardest to comply for fear of missing a second of the spectacle. Complementing the visuals is Dario Marianelli’s stunning, expressive score, which truly shines in the sequences that accompany Kubo’s stories as he plucks his shamisen. The voicework in this film is also splendid. Parkinson turns in the right kind of childish determination as Kubo, Theron is sublime as his dedicated, no-nonsense guardian and Mara brings a cold detachment to her role as the Sisters. McConaughey also brings some welcome goofiness to the film but the light-hearted banter between Beetle and Monkey can sometimes be out of place and corny.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvellous achievement in modern animation. I can only imagine the number of hours it must have taken to create these visuals in all of their splendour and painstaking detail. The film’s merits are far more than technical though; Kubo boasts of incredible action, compelling characters and strong emotional resonance. The film will astonish the children just as much as it will move the adults. The story it tells is a bold one that shows how cruel and vicious the world can be as Kubo struggles with the pains of loss, loneliness, guilt, doubt and vulnerability. It is also a story that showcases the redemptive and commemorative powers of storytelling, leading to a deeply profound ending. After some of the stupendous works that have been produced over the past five or so years, the standard for children’s animation has never been higher. Kubo and the Two Strings triumphantly exceeds those standards is to be sure one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

★★★★★