Movie Mechanic: The Dark Tower

Make: Columbia Pictures, MRC, Imagine Pictures

Model: The Dark Tower

Year: 2017

Diagnostic

Mumbo jumbo. Keystone Earth. Shine. Excalibur. Arthur Eld. Pennywise. The Dark Tower is full of references to things that don’t make any sense to the viewers. It’s clear that the producers were trying to shoehorn references from the 9-book series in order to nod to the fans of the series, but everyone else ended up disoriented, even alienated by the use of these weird phrases. To rebuild this movie, we have to start with effective world building without using mumbo jumbo.

What works: Idris Elba’s gunslinger is the horsepower in this movie. He is cool, powerful, and skilled. Every time he says “forgotten the face of his father” it feels authentic. And the very best scene in the whole movie is Elba’s impossible gun shot to save the kid, Jake Chambers.

Speaking of Jake Chambers, Tom Taylor does a decent job as the main kid in this movie, but he lacks some depth. His character discovers he has psychic abilities, which he has no clue how to use, until the climax of the movie, when he suddenly needs them and he’s an expert.

What doesn’t work: The mumbo jumbo. The only reason to use unfamiliar terms is to indicate that someone is not from around here, which we already know about these characters because they are wearing Edgar suits, they travel through weird portals, and they live in a place with a giant black tower. So the mumbo jumbo serves no purpose. It’s dumb. It makes people feel dumb or confused. So, it’s got to go. “Keystone Earth” goes back to being “Earth.” “The Shine” is just psychic abilities. And the surprise Arthurian reference is gone.

The Man in Black also falters. He is menacing and powerful, sure, but for all his magic, he fights by throwing rocks and waving his hands around like he’s playing Let’s Dance 2009. Also, the Man in Black’s motives are not really fleshed out. He wants to take down the Dark Tower, but why? To let all the monsters and demons in? Doesn’t seem like the behavior of a rational person. It’s not clear what the Man in Black stands to gain from the Tower’s destruction. He is essentially the same character as Kaecilius from Doctor Strange, and yet, we have a perfectly understandable motivation for why Kaecilius wants to serve Dormamu. The Man in Black? Nobody knows.

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The Man in Black

And what about those monsters and demons? They were introduced once, and then never seen again. Those demons are nothing but possibilities. Possibilities that never materialized. In order to get things right in this movie, we need to capitalize on the right possibilities.

Rebuild:

The characters and story are good for the most part. In order to make this story better, we need to eliminate the mumbo jumbo and add a worst case scenario.

In the first act, we need to get stronger hints at Jake’s psychic ability aside from the visions. At school, Jake is bullied, but instead of punching the bully, he suddenly flashes his psychic ability and the bully passes out. Jake gets in trouble, gets attacked, and escapes to the other world.

In the other world, the Man in Black finds out that the clinic skin people failed to get Jake, and someone killed a house demon and used the portal. The Man in Black, Walter, gets a sample of Jake’s blood and a demon tracks it and says he has psychic abilities (no mention of shine), the strongest he’s ever seen.

Gunslinger-The-man-in-black
The Gunslinger and Man in Black face off

Meanwhile, Roland and Jake camp out in a beatdown amusement park. Jake asks about the Dark Tower. If it falls, monsters and demons will run rampant through all the universes. Walter sends an attack on the Dark Tower, and a rift opens up. Jake sees his dad. Dad turns out to be a demon. Boom, Roland shoots it. Roland sees another demon disguised as his own father. Shoots it too. Roland gets attacked from behind. Jake uses his psychic ability to disintegrate the demon. Jake’s psychic ability is getting stronger.

Jake and Roland get to the village, talk to the oracle, and get attacked. Walter uses his magic to distract Jake long enough for him to get knocked out and kidnapped. Roland takes that amazing shot to save Jake, using his mantra as guide. Jake wakes up to see the bullet pierce the rat’s head.

Idris-Elba-gunslinger
Idris Elba as the Gunslinger

Roland and Jake head back to Earth, arm up, and find Jake’s mom and stepdad dead. Jake and Roland have some target practice, bond, and go after Walter. Walter takes Jake, hooks him up to the machine, and shoots the Dark Tower. The demons and monsters flood the area. Jake zaps Walter with a psychic pulse, and Roland shoots him dead. Now, the real problem. Demons and monsters are everywhere.  Jake climbs back in the machine, aims it at the demons coming out of the rift. He kills most of them, but a handful escape, change form and blend in. Roland and Jake realize that they have a lot of work ahead of them and go off to fight the demons together.

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Movies are a short form of entertainment. While a 9-book series may be plenty of time to lay the groundwork for all of the weird terms people use, a movie doesn’t have time to explain mumbo jumbo. Also, if the worst thing that could happen doesn’t happen, then the problem isn’t really resolved. In The Dark Tower, the worst that could happen is the tower falling. It needs to happen so that the problem can be fully resolved. If the movie had gone this way, it would have been better, and possibly been that franchise setup the studio was hoping for.

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