In ‘Tower’, franchise visions fall flat – Film barely edging out ‘Dunkirk’ with dismal $18m

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Ah, August. It’s that time of year when you can head to your local multiplex to see Matthew McConaughey as an interplanetary David Copperfield who’s trying to use his “magics” to destroy a looming tower that protects the universe from ready-to-invade hordes of demons that linger just outside the universe. So, I guess, pretty far out there in space.

To be fair, this August boasts some of the more intriguing films of the summer, like Steven Soderbergh’s triumphant return (“Logan Lucky”) and Kathryn Bigelow’s furious race-riots docudrama (“Detroit”). “The Dark Tower,’ though, is the more traditional late-summer offering: a long-in-development, not-ready-for-prime-time studio dump.

A litany of directors, including J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard, has tried to crack Stephen King’s magnum opus, a series of seven novels he wrote over more than two decades. But after much shuffling, “The Dark Tower” has finally arrived via director Nikolaj Arcel, who penned the 2009 Swedish adaptation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and helmed the 18th century Danish period drama “A Royal Affair.”

The special effects-heavy fantasy is a leap in production size that outstrips Arcel. The film, at a lean 95 minutes, has the unmistakable air of a mitigated disaster. Its scope and running time have seemingly been reined in to keep “The Dark Tower” from completely toppling. What’s left is an elaborate and grand scheme told briskly but emptily — like if someone tried to explain the HBO series “Westworld” in 30 seconds or less.

“Westworld” surely took some of its inspiration from “The Dark Tower,” a soupy mix of sci-fi, horror, Western and Arthurian legend. The elaborate concoction of genres — it’s King to the max — would likely humble most any filmmaker. We have, as a civilization, found a way to marry Taco Bells with Pizza Huts, but the combo of wizards and cowboys remains a vexing one.

After a brief hint of what’s to come, the movie opens in modern New York City with a young teenager: Jake Chambers (newcomer Tom Taylor). His dreams are plagued by visions of an alternate world, Mid-World, where he sees a gunslinger named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) battling the Man in Black (McConaughey), who’s hell-bent, for reasons unknown, on ending the universe.

Jake furiously sketches his visions, prompting his sensitive but uncertain mother (Abby Lee, the best and most natural thing in this mess) and comic-book-cruel stepfather to agree to send him to a psychiatric retreat upstate. But when two arrive to retrieve him, Jake observes a feature in their faces from his dreams: the stitches of false skin. He flees and improvises his way to a building from his visions that turns out to be a portal to Mid-World. “This is good,” he says. “It’s all real.” He tosses in a shoe as a test and soon thereafter plummets in.

Minimal

There he quickly runs into Roland, the stone-faced, duster-wearing gunslinger with a six-shooter in a land with minimal guns or bullets. The name comes from King’s inspiration, the Robert Browning poem “Child Rolande to the Dark Tower Came,” and King’s Roland has a grim quest of his own: to avenge the Man in Black for murdering his father. Jake, we learn, will play a pivotal role in the battle that will decide the fate of both worlds — Mid-World and, as Roland calls it, Keystone Earth. His “shine,” we are often told, is strong and pure.

Elba is, as usual, a powerful force on the screen who deserves better. McConaughey’s character, though, is more outlandish. Thanks to his team of henchmen, the Man in Black zips between worlds like no one else. His dark powers are such that he can catch bullets between his fingers and, to nearly all but Roland, give flip commands like “Stop breathing” and the victim will promptly keel over. If only he could stride past the movie, itself, and order “Better.”

But “The Dark Tower” is never quite a punchline. Such actors as Elba and McConaughey are too good, the youngster Taylor acquits himself well and the tale is on fairly stable ground while on Keystone Earth. Mid-World and its necessary special effects, however, not so much.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: “The Dark Tower” is set to (just barely) edge out “Dunkirk” as the summer box office loses even more steam, early estimates showed Friday.

Sony and MRC’s adaptation is projected to win the weekend with about $18 million at 3,449 locations for the Friday-Sunday period while Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” should finish a close second with about $16 million at 4,014 sites. Should the estimate hold, “The Dark Tower” will post the second-lowest total of a weekend winner this year, above only the Feb 3 to Feb 5 Super Bowl frame, when the third weekend of “Split” won with $14.4 million.

Sony’s second weekend of “The Emoji Movie” appears headed for third place with $12 million to $14 million. Aviron’s launch of Halle Berry’s “Kidnap” is pegged for a fourth-place battle with Annapurna’s expanded run of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” in the $8 million to $10 million range. Universal’s third weekend of “Girls Trip” and Focus Features’ second frame of “Atomic Blonde” are also contending for fourth place. (Agencies)

The $18 million projected performance by “The Dark Tower” is in line with Sony’s recent projections, but lower than the earlier $20 million to $25 million estimate from other studios. “The Dark Tower,” based on Stephen King’s series of eight novels, cost $60 million to make. The film stars Idris Elba as the Gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the villain Man in Black.

The moderate domestic start for “The Dark Tower” will add to the need for the film to perform well in international markets if it’s to recoup the investment. The movie begins its international rollout this weekend in Russia, smaller territories in Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Southeast Asia. It expand through Europe next week, with UK, Australia and Latin America coming later in August.

Nikolaj Arcel directed from a script by the writing teams of Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel. “The Dark Tower” has been panned by critics, earning a dismal 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Owen Gleiberman of Variety came in with a positive notice: “It’s a competent and watchable paranoid metaphysical video game that doesn’t overstay its welcome.”

Strong reviews don’t appear to he helping “Detroit,” which had been forecast for the $10 million to $15 million range from 3,007 locations, after taking in $365,455 last weekend from 20 screens. “Detroit” has an impressive 88% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

By Jake Coyle

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