At 144 minutes, Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s 1977 horror classic The Shining clocks in at nine minutes shorter than Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan’s new film interpretation of King’s 2013 sequel. Something about the math on that doesn’t look right, as if some tabulation error switched the totals around. For one, Doctor Sleep feels several small eternities longer than The Shining. But more to the point, how is it possible that Flanagan’s film does and contains so much less than its comparatively svelter predecessor?
Kubrick — an unimpeachable master nobody in their right mind would volunteer to be judged against, so points to Flanagan for sheer chutzpah — conveyed The Shining’s atmosphere of deteriorating sanity with touches of the alien and inscrutable. Kubrick’s vision still provokes shivers because it’s so unexplained and unknowable: the sudden snap zoom to the man receiving oral sex from a masked figure in an animal costume remains a shocking, baffling question mark after all these years. But King has spent decades knocking The Shining for taking liberties with his source text. He hated the film so much that in 2012, he publicly bragged about winning by outliving Kubrick.
He should be happy with Flanagan’s treatment of his writing, then, in all its literalism, heavy-handedness, and restriction of interpretation. While the documentary Room 237 examined the wildly varied readings of Kubrick’s Shining and the subcultures that’s sprung up around it, Flanagan’s sister piece ensures that its underlying meaning is as close to the surface as the shallow grave discovered in the second act. Flanagan chose to make Doctor Sleep utterly banal. Through means straightforward and blunt, he’s turned a surreal simulation of succumbing to insanity into a plainly stated reminder to always be true to yourself.
It’s an age-old lesson that Shining protagonist Danny Torrance, now an adult played by Ewan McGregor, could stand to keep in mind himself. He’s fallen into self-destructive behaviors: he’s introduced waking up to a naked stranger and dried vomit, and flashing back to the previous night’s bar fight, coke lines, and sloppy hookup. He’s repressing a lot of trauma, a concept represented by a repeated shot of boxes locked up tight in his mind, and then an explanation that these boxes are how he keeps his personal demons at bay, for anyone in the audience in need of clarification.
Flanagan’s target audience appears to be the easily lost, judging by the diligence with which he explains every plot point and symbol to within an inch of its life. Danny gets back on the straight and narrow when he receives a psychic distress call from young Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran), another child with “the shine,” the same ESP powers Danny has. At their first face-to-face meeting, he delivers a banal explanation of his gifts that make an attunement to an ambient elemental energy in the air into something closer to superpowers. Her abilities have near-limitless untapped potential, but she’s still summoned him as the last line of defense against the nefarious Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, dressed up like Amy Sherman-Palladino) and her cult, The True Knot. They vape the souls of children touched by the shine in exchange for eternal life, which makes extra-special Abra (yes, as in -cadabra) their Thanksgiving dinner.
Doctor Sleep features about an hour of buildup before Danny and Abra’s paths physically cross, following much telepathic communication, place-setting, and other slack. During this time, Flanagan could be having fun toying with the fearful audience, misleading them to get them off guard before the conflict’s main event begins in earnest. But Flanagan’s paltry bag of tricks errs on the side of the derivative. (Any viewers who considered the Overlook sequence from Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One adaptation to be a violation of all that is holy should bring their rosaries.)
Even before Flanagan starts playing a tuneless cover version of The Shining’s blood-flood scene, he leans too hard on the technique of fixing a single point in the frame while the scene moves around it, a move Hereditary director Ari Aster also loves, while understanding that it functions best when used sparingly. The clever management of space and communication of interiority that brought Flanagan’s earlier King-adapted movie Gerald’s Game to life have inexplicably taken leave of him.
The genuflections to Kubrick’s work create a strange dissonance, given that Flanagan states early and emphatically that he wants Doctor Sleep to stand on its own. Arguably, the story’s focus on confronting the phantoms of the past calls for distracting touches like the off-brand doppelgängers for Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. But even if the Shining echoes are defensible, they don’t make for a more enjoyable or interesting movie. They’re largely an excuse to borrow from the legacy and mastery of a far superior film.
Flanagan hasn’t entirely bungled Doctor Sleep. A few of his spooky bits get the chills he’s angling for, and he gets fine performances out of McGregor and Ferguson, even if they can’t agree on what sort of movie they’re acting in. But because the same IP-bandying that makes this property an instant sell to a built-in mass audience invites the audience to weigh it against a steep standard of excellence, it can’t help but pale in comparison. That’s the cruel Catch-22 of today’s franchise-obsessed Hollywood. The series familiarity that makes it easy to lure the pop-culturally literate to the multiplex also proves they’d be better off staying at home with the classics.