Stephen King's seven-volume fantasy series The Dark Tower was completed in 2004; the attempts to turn it into a film (or film + TV) franchise began nearly immediately thereafter. And now we come at the end of ten full years of development hell, and what do we find? A big old wet squib of a movie, that's what. For all the labor and love that went into The Dark Tower, the film itself is the most profoundly mediocre thing, a fantasy epic that clips by in 95 joylessly efficient minutes, as though by the time it got to the final draft of the screenplay (credited to Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel, the last of whom doubles as director; I suspect that "and" covers untold legions of hack screenwriters given a chance at the thing) and the first day of shooting arrived, everybody had completely lost interest and just wanted to be quit of the damn thing.

It sure as hell isn't love of the material that animated the adaptation; The Dark Tower isn't really an adaptation nor a sequel (as some of the promo material hinted), but more like a wholly new story drawing from the same concepts and using the same character names. If I, a latecomer to the book series, found it so point-missing relative to the novels, I can only imagine the dull frustration of the fans who've been waiting on this movie for years, and are, in a very real way, the only target audience for the thing. Certainly, I can't imagine how somebody without a ready knowledge of the books' meandering and ad hoc cosmology could possibly figure out the hell is going on in a movie that's very found of spitting out details and thoroughly allergic to putting them in any kind of contextual framework.

Here, anyway, is the plot as it exists this time around: there is a boy of around 13 or so, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), living in New York with his beleagured mother (Katheryn Winnick) and unloving stepfather (Nicholas Pauling), and he has been in a bad way ever since his firefighter father died. Specifically, Jake has been having impossibly strong visions of a lanky man all in black, and a different man wearing guns on his hips and a cowboy's duster, and a strange facility where the man in black forces children and teenagers to generate some kind of energy which they use to blast a large black tower reaching into the clouds, crumbling it by inches. Jake has no clue what this means, but a title card has helpfully informed us that the Tower is a sort of key to a force field protecting all the dimensions of reality from whatever lies outside, and that it can only be destroyed by "the mind of a child".

What follows is straight out of the YA fantasy playbook, "Chosen One" branch: Jake, naturally, is that very same child who has enough "shine" - psychic power, and yes, that's where the term comes from - to destroy the Dark Tower once and for all. Which means that the man in black, naming himself Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey) has agents scouring New York for him. Jake, with his acute sense of danger and survival skills, manages to stay just enough ahead of the bad guys to make it to a dilapated old house where he outwits a demon in a scene far too short to quality as a setpiece (it is, however, the only point in the movie that is directly derived from a specific scene in any of the seven books), and thus able to jump through a portal in space-time to a place called Mid-World. Here, he meets the other figure from his visions, a gunslinger named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), last of a dying breed of roving heroes serving to protect the Tower.

That's a lot, and there's a lot more to come; among the biggest problems with The Dark Tower is that it has much too much stuff in it, given the running time. It wants to be a grand, sweeping fantasy epic, taking Jake and Roland across the desert and into the last towns of the dying Mid-World and then back to New York, but it has neither the budget nor the running time to make good on that. Particularly not the running time: this feels like the reduced version of a much longer film, one that (for example) gives us time to appreciate the otherworldliness of Mid-World through Jake's wide eyes, allows us to fully appreciate the sad grandeur of Roland's world-weariness and the bond he forms with Jake, or give us a sense of the scale of the Man in Black's evil plans. Instead, the story clicks ahead like a metronome: we were in the desert but now we're in a town and in the town they say that the Dark Tower is six months away but they also have a magic transport beam that will take us to New York oh no the Man in Black got to Jake's mom.

The result is a deeply unmagical fantasy, one that Arcel directs with all the spirit of adventure of an assistant manager at a used car dealership. The visual effects, monster design, and landscape photography all promise that there could have been something more sweeping and epic, but it's simply not present in the finished film. This is as perfunctory and graceless as any movie from 2017, with a summer that has been good for perfunctory films.

The one saving grace, I guess, is that all three leads are interesting; they feel like they're in three different movies, but that's no matter. Taylor is a strong child protagonist, projecting a wounded feeling that eschews any hint of preciousness, feeling much older and sadder than he looks, and insofar as there was ever going to be a prayer of making The Dark Tower work as a YA adventure, he was a good casting choice. Elba and McConaughey are also great choices, on paper; they end up approaching the material from entirely opposite ends (which makes sense, thematically?), and... I said "interesting", not "good", because I would never want to call McConaughey's work here "good". But he's bad on purpose, if you will, chewing on on the asinine dialogue he's been handed - the dialogue in the film is generally nonsensical fantasy gobbledygook, but the villains get it the worst - with the smug, bored drawl that only "McConaughey as the Devil" could provide. It's low-key hammy, and mostly silly enough to be fun. Elba, on the far end of things, has apparently decided to try redeeming the movie by being very good indeed, and his wracked expressions of pain and loss, the panic he keeps allowing to color his flat deliveries, and his carriage, slumped but full of presence, suggest the version of this script where Roland was a rich, complex, well-developed character, and not just a cheap copy of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In a way, this is all fitting. Adaptations of Stephen King's stories have a notoriously low success rate. And The Dark Tower cycle was, by the end, designed to be the glue holding his whole career together. In that respect, the film adaptation ought to be crappy: the crowning mediocrity to tower above all other mediocrities. Of course, that would assume that anybody remembers that this even exists in a half-year's time; but no, The Dark Tower is one of those hugely bland misfires whose legacy will be that nagging feeling that Idris Elba played a cowboy once, and McConaughey was a stand-in for Satan. There's not really anything else about it that's good enough, or bad enough, to otherwise stand out.