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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A Review of The Grey Castle

Admittedly, that's a very cool poster
Well, I saw it.

Call it The Grey Castle, call it The Dark Bomb, call it Ramblin' Joe and his Magnificent Bumbershoot, if you want, but don't call it The Dark Tower. Because it ain't that.

I tried. I tried so hard to see this as just a movie. To evaluate it as only a movie. But there's so little here as a movie that I could not help but see this the only way that mattered to me; as an adaptation of a series that I love.

As a movie, this is one big nothingburger. No substance. No style of its own. It looked like a million other sci-fi dramas of recent years. If I wasn't familiar with The Dark Tower, you could probably convince me that this was another chapter in some teen-centric sci-fi series like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner or Divergent. Only it's not even as engaging as those three, and I don't really find the others engaging at all.

As an adaptation, this fails on all fronts. I mean, we're just a few steps up from The Lawnmower Man. My first words to my wife when I finished watching was "Well, that was an abomination." Years we've been waiting for this. So many false starts, so many promises...and this is what we got. This whole thing felt like Fant4stic, a rush job meant solely to hold on to the rights.

As I'm sure you all remember, I was not happy that Roland was being played by Idris Elba, but not
because I don't like Idris Elba. I think Idris Elba is an amazing actor, and one of those guys who's always watchable no matter how bad the film is they're acting in. That's probably why they hired him. In fact, that's absolutely why they hired him. And it's only thanks to him that I wasn't bored to the point of playing with my phone whenever his scenes were being shown. Because holy Gan, they were so generic.

So, while I think Elba did a fine job (that was never in question), the fact remains that this was not Roland. And I don't mean Roland is white, therefore Elba didn't look like Roland. I mean this wasn't Roland. This Roland isn't seeking the Tower. He hardly has any interest in it. He just wants to stop Walter, in the most run-of-the-mill good-guy-vs-bad-guy plot I've ever seen. This Roland has no quest. He has no purpose. And really, this isn't even his movie.

It's Jake's. Jake is the central focus of the movie. We see pretty much all of it through his eyes. And that wouldn't be so bad, I guess, if this was actually Jake and not some random kid. This Jake is the son of a firefighter killed on 9/11 (not a terrible idea in and of itself, really) and he's being hunted by Walter's agents (the Taheen) because he has an incredible psychic power that makes him the ultimate Breaker. I'm not describing what all this means. It's in the books and though I know there are some readers here who haven't read The Dark Tower series, it would take too long and I'm not interested in rehashing it all. Long story short is that this Jake has pretty much fuck all to do with Jake of the books, who has no psychic abilities and who didn't find All-World thanks to a machine but in a permanent way that means he can't go back home (which in this film is all he wants to do).

This all plays out in the most boring of ways, again saved only by the fact that Elba has that magnetism that makes you want to watch him. Tom Taylor, who plays Jake, doesn't, which doesn't mean I think he's a bad actor, just that he's not the kind of riveting actor that makes boring scenes seem less so. And unfortunately we spend most of our time following him, with Roland not even appearing for probably 20 minutes.

There's all these little touches that show the creators of this film (at least some of them) have read the books, but that just makes me more angry. The more little Easter eggs, like Roland muttering "the world has moved on", a very brief shot of Charlie the Choo-Choo, references to Roland's guns being forged from the sword of Arthur Eld, Walter using Black Thirteen to communicate with Roland, and even psychic powers being called "shine" (more a reference to King's works in general, and more specifically, The Shining, but I'll take it), the more I realized that whoever included these was an actual fan, and yet still this is the movie they produced. A movie designed to please everyone, that pleases no one.

If there was an unexpected bright spot to this, it's that I was actually a bit impressed with Matthew McConaughey as Walter Padick, the Man in Black. Walter is Stephen King's most oft-used villain, the same being (if not the same persona) as Randall Flagg of The Stand, Flagg of The Eyes of the Dragon and probably some others besides. The Man in Black of the books starts off feeling more like an evil wizard from a faerie story, but Roland ultimately meets him in many guises, including ones that are more like Flagg from The Stand. McConaughey is kinda like Flagg but in a dark suit, and he suppresses his southern accent to the point where it's not quite gone but has him speaking in an evil purr that's just right. I almost do want to see him take on Flagg in a Stand adaptation, but I'm not re-working my SKCU to fit him in. It just means I was more impressed than I thought I'd be at his performance. I actually bought him as a villain, and he does appear to have more layers than I initially thought of him.

But ultimately, this is one big fail of a movie. It fails to engage (critics were merciless) and it fails as an adaptation. It made some money (not even its budget plus half, making it nowhere near the massive hit it needed to be), but audiences ultimately gave it a low score themselves, and I'm all but positive that the planned sequel won't happen.

That doesn't mean the people behind it have taken the hint. I hear they're still going ahead with a planned TV series that will focus on Roland as a younger man. Initially it was meant to be a prequel to the movie, but now King himself is saying it will not be related at all, and will be "more faithful". Frankly, I don't trust these producers. I hope the TV series that is currently in the works fails to be picked up, and that a series actually based on the damn books (what is so hard about that?) can be made.

Because, really, this series needs to be a TV series. I'm not sure why I ever thought it could work as a movie.

Jackie Earle Haley as Sayre
I bring this up now because I'm about halfway through the second Dark Tower novel, The Drawing of the Three, and while it's still a very good book, I understand that a lot of changes will be necessary, not just to the way the story in this book is told, but to the story in general. That said, as I've said repeatedly before, change is not bad. Not by itself. Andy Muscietti's It changed a lot. But damn if it wasn't one fine movie, and a fine adaptation. It understood the source material, and it respected it. If Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Ayrcel had any respect for the source material, it wasn't evident in the film they produced. Sure, at least two of those five have probably read the books, but it's clear they didn't understand what made them what they were. In fact, it often felt like they'd read Wikipedia summaries or maybe even just clicked at random through the Wiki. The Taheen are there, including Richard Sayre and Pimli, but they're just random mooks now. A truck used to capture Jake has the words "Sombra Corporation" on the side, but who and what the Sombra Corporation is isn't even touched on. The Dixie Pig is there briefly, but again, without context. Twice we see "All Hail the Crimson King" spray-painted on a wall, but his name is never spoken on screen, nor is it hinted that Walter has a boss.

Honestly, it's like the creators just read the first book (or skimmed it) and the last three. Most of the obvious references are from the last three books, when the series kinda went off the rails and introduced so much that wasn't part of the series at all up until then. As much as I liked seeing the House Demon, the stuff that made me come to love this series was nowhere. Roland's backstory doesn't even get a brief mention (Dennis Haysbert cameos as his father, but his one scene is far from relevatory), nor is Roland told about the Three that he will Draw, and in fact the end of the film seems to suggest that the story is wrapped up. Roland never even sees the Tower. In fact, the Tower is in all of three or four shots. And they even get the Tower wrong; it looks okay, but it's apparently here to "protect us from darkness". No. Just no. The Tower is here as the lynchpin of reality. What kind of nebulous bullshit is this mission to "protect us from darkness"? This is the kind of lack of respect I'm talking about.

So, yeah, the slate needs to be wiped clean and re-done, and by different people. I will continue to make my Dark Tower casting posts as if this movie never happened, and as if this new TV series that's in the works gets scrapped. I don't mind exploring Roland's past in the TV series, I mean, hell, it's going to be 100% necessary. But I want the story from the books filmed, or at least as close to it as we can. I want to see the Drawing, and have Eddie and Susannah show up. I want Shardik. I want Lud. I want Blaine the Pain. Hell, I even want Father Callahan to show up. Will there be a ton of changes, even in my version? Yes, of course there will be. But the respect for the source material will also be there, and until Hollywood can get someone working on this who brings that respect, Howard, Goldsman and company need to just quit while they're waaaaay behind.


  1. I agree. Whatever this was, it wasn't "The Dark Tower."

    I'm not even fond of what Elba and McConaughey did in the film. I like both actors -- and I've been a McConaughey fan since 1993 -- but feel that they were absolutely lost in this movie.

    Ah, well. Maybe the inevitable reboot will be better.

    1. Don't get me wrong, Elba and McConaughey weren't enough to SAVE this movie (nothing could), but they at least did credible enough jobs. Both are good enough actors to be watchable even with a bad script, but yes, this has to be remade and it has to be done with different actors.

      This Walter was not the Walter of the books, who has several different personas, while McConaughey was pretty one-note. Roland is a densely layered character while here he was just a scowling stereotypical cowboy. Again, as written, this character is just plain not interesting, which is likely why they wanted an actor with natural magnetism to play him.

      I still don't understand why they screwed up the Tower. Yes, there was a scene detailing that it's the nexus of all existing realities, but apparently what that means is that there are barriers protecting reality from darkness and that if the tower falls, the darkness can come in. No, sorry, that's just wrong. The Tower is what makes all realities work together, and as it's starting to fail, reality is becoming fluid and malleable, and causing time to act weirdly. It's affecting Roland's world more noticably than others, because the Tower's physical self is in his world. That makes so much more sense than this nebulous "protect us from darkness" idea.

      I do have more to say about Idris Elba being the first actor to ever play Roland onscreen. I read something back when this was first announced that really resonated with me, but they used Robin Hood, which is a figure from mythology. I'll use one from a literary source.

      Imagine if there had never, ever been a film version of The Lord of the Rings until this past year, and finally, after all this time, a film version was announced, and everyone was ready to see Middle-Earth come to life on screen. And then, finally, when one happens, everything changes.

      Saruman is changed from a good wizard corrupted by the Big Bad into the primary villain. The story is condensed into a 100-minute narrative that skips over everything fans loved about this movie and becomes a simple good-vs-evil tale about the heroic Aragorn and his wizard friend Gandalf battling their former mentor and his Ringwraiths to save a young Hobbit named Frodo from his evil clutches.

      And Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn, who have never been portrayed on film before, are played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Morgan Freeman and Ryan Gosling.

      This is what happened with The Dark Tower. Elba's skin color was ultimately immaterial, just a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself. It was indicative of a desire by the producers to give us a quick, slick, homogenized film that contained just enough elements that it could use the same name and claim to be based on the book, and it cast an actors who were popular and likable, not actors who were anything like the characters from the book.

    2. I only ever thought Elba's skin color was an issue because of what it implied about the direction the adaptation would be taking: away from the source material rather than toward it. And that turned out to be exactly the case.

      Your LOTR comparison is pretty apt. But in reading it, I've gotten this idea in my mind of Elba playing Strider/Aragorn, and BOY would I be onboard for that.

    3. Yeah, that's what I'm saying. And why I couldn't agree with those who stated that Roland's race is incidental. It's only incidental if you remove so much of the story that it only barely resembles the books.

      As presented, yes, Roland's skin color is completely incidental and not at all detrimental to the film or the character. Unfortunately the film and character as written were detrimental to the film and character.

      I agree that he would be a badass Aragorn, but I'm just as glad that Peter Jackson went for book accuracy. This reminds me of all the changes he was asked to make when he was shopping it around to various studios; he was told it had to be done in one film (and not a "part one", either; he wasn't getting more than one film), while another would agree to two films (which Jackson would have acquiesced to), but my favorite has to be when he was asked if he'd turn Sam into a girl and have him be Frodo's love interest.

      Ultimately I hope that the following happens: Howard and Company can't get their series greenlit, so they decide to either sell the rights or look for someone else who can execute the vision properly and then just let them do their thing. I still would love to see Daniel Knauf come on board.

      I'll be talking a lot more about how my thoughts for a TV series are coming together in my next post.

  2. I didn't see this once it became apparent there was a consensus that it was godawful. I started out with hope after reading an interview with the director, who sounded like he genuinely wanted to do justice to the source material. It may be that he's just completely inept, like that other director who has done a ton of King adaptations, all of them badly... I don't really want to look his name up. And I'm with you, that poster is some damn good marketing material.

    Your LOTR comments are interesting. I actually think Peter Jackson was a victim of his own success once it came time to film the Hobbit "trilogy". That one would have been much better served as two movies, which was the original plan. I guess I'm mostly happy with the tradeoff, but damn. It started off so well...