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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Dark Tower Trailer Analysis

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The fantasy genre is one of the most unrewarding parts of blockbuster cinema in the 2010s.  Fantasy has always been a persnickety genre, with a lot of bizarre or subpar elements populating its history, but the 2000s were a better time for it.  Between Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, and Pirates of the Caribbean the 2000s were flush with cool, epic fantasy blockbusters.  

However, since 2011 the genre has undergone a bit of a stumbling block.  The kings of the genre have only managed disappointing prequels like The Hobbit and Fantastic Beasts, while the most continuously successful films on the block are all up-jumped Disney fairy tales. 

There’s something about that which just doesn’t feel right, even if Maleficent, Cinderella, and Jungle Book have all placed in the highest grossing films of the year they just haven’t stuck in the mind or the culture the way 2000s fantasy blockbusters did.  Even in the realms of TV, the influence of Game of Thrones has begun to wobble with nothing really to replace it.  

This has left a prolonged hole in the fantasy genre for new films to set the attitude, stuff like Dr. Strange and Warcraft.  Now, it looks like we’ll have a brand new blockbuster to try and put its stamp on the fantasy genre, the long-awaited adaptation of the classic Steven King dark fantasy series Dark Tower.

Let me say at the start if you’re looking for a serious dive into the lore and importance of Dark Tower this isn’t the place for it.  I don’t dislike the book or anything, but it’s just one of those pop culture blind spots we all develop.  I am, however, pretty familiar with the broad strokes of the mythos, the importance this series holds for others, the unique space it occupies within the pantheon of fantasy work, and its relation to Steven King’s larger body of work.  I’d dare say I’m most familiar with that last one as I' m a genuine Steven King fan, mainly on the horror side but, as I’m about to explain, that’s not a huge distinction when it comes to King. 

See, even though the practice of Easter eggs and shared continuity has only recently become mainstream it’s always been a popular thing among the kind of geeks that become major creators like King.  As such, a lot of his stories have little nods and inter-connections, like how the town in Tommyknockers is one county over from the hamlet in IT. 

Eventually, King ended up deciding to tie a lot of this little connections together into a great, big, fantasy epic called Dark Tower, which sketched out a lot of the cosmology of the shared universe he’d created.  As far as outside stories go IT and The Stand tie most heavily into the Dark Tower mythos, with the evil spider from IT explained in Dark Tower and The Stand’s villain Randall Flagg tied heavily to Matthew McConaughey’s character ‘The Man in Black.’ 

Diving from that jumping off point right into this trailer, I think it does an excellent job getting anyone not super-aware of Dark Tower up to speed.  The blend of narration from Idris Elba and Nicholas Hamilton’s Lucas Hanson lays out a lot of the groundwork for this world, its rules, and inhabitants.  There’s the real world, which seems cut-off from most of the spiritual stuff but for a few spots like the Overlook Hotel, which we can spot in a quick glance at the therapist’s desk. 

Then there’s the world of the Gunslinger, a mystic plane and part of a larger set of universes called the Macroverse.  That’s probably the biggest idea in the whole Dark Tower series, basically another take on the Multiverse concept from comics but with different terminology.  Most of that isn’t actually addressed in the first book, so I don’t think we’ll see too much of it here other than the universe hopping gate that Lucas stumbles upon.  However, I will say that right now is probably the best time to take this stuff on given how much Stranger Things and The Flash have made parallel realities more palatable to general audiences. 

But for the most part our premise seems clear- there’s the good Gunslinger who’s become weary of his quest, the villainous Man in Black who wants to destroy the Dark Tower and by extension the world, and the young boy Lucas who stumbles into their blood feud.  Where I think things kind of fall down is how…flat it all feels.  Firstly, the visual style is decidedly generic, a lot of basic CGI slavering monsters and orc stand-ins floating around amid the standard fantasy vistas and rolling hills.  I mean, the whole franchise is built on the incredibly unique visual conceit of a fantasy story whose main hero is a cowboy with six-shooters, but this trailer does everything it can to downplay that element. 

What’s more, it’s odd how much this trailer makes the Gunslinger out to be a supporting character.  Now I admit, they might be an act of preserving the book’s structure in the medium translation, but it does end up dragging down the uniqueness of the proceedings.  Restructuring the format to feature the little kid as sort of the main hero and the Gunslinger as his cool fantasy tagalong friend it gives off the vibe of a “hero in the city” science fantasy flick from the ‘80s or ‘90s. 

This was a whole trend for a while where films would take an epic fantasy hero and transplant him from his fresh and exciting setting to a modern city, that way they could cut down on the cost of showing the fantasy setting and just have the hero discover stuff like car radios and the lamp.  Hercules in New York, Suburban Commando, Masters of the Universe, and Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time all pulled this same trick, and they’re all rightly forgotten as a result. 

Now obviously I have no idea if the movie will be like that and as I said, it could be this is just the best way to preserve the narrative strengths of the first novel.  If that happens, I actually thinking making this out as a by-the-numbers “kid meets hero” fantasy tale could be an incredible sucker punch to a ton of unsuspecting audience members.  On the other hand, I’m not totally sure “generic fantasy throwback film” is the best way to market the movie to an audience beyond fans of the book.  I mean, before I did more research for this write-up I was totally willing to take this trailer at face value and dismiss the film, and I don’t think I was necessarily alone in that decision. 

Even accepting that there might be more going on than initially presented here, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this trailer.  I mean, to be sure Idris Elba looks solid enough and Matthew McConaughey looks like an absolute blast, but everything just feels a little too safe on the whole.  Even if they manage to execute the riskier parts of the book that’d be impressive on a narrative level but not necessarily the stuff that guides a genre.  Then again, there’s no rule that says Dark Tower needs to be the new thing charting the course of fantasy films. 

I’m still a little underwhelmed by the action and visuals but then again neither of those are really director Nikolaj Arcel’s strong suit or really a selling point of this trailer.  What this trailer looks and feels like, more than anything else, is a dinner bell for fans of the book that their story has finally come to life and that’s a fine thing to be.  It’s not necessarily something that’ll lead to widespread success, just look at Ender’s Game or Warcraft for proof of that, but if you’re a Dark Tower fan I think it’s time to get excited. 

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