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While Doctor Sleep musters a couple good chills, it’s a bit of a snoozer.

A Tarnished Shine

Ewan McGregor revisits a horror
Ewan McGregor revisits a horror

It’s no secret legendary author Stephen King isn’t fond of equally legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining. For that matter, the public wasn’t entirely enamored with it back in 1980. The intervening decades have brushed aside the Razzie nominations Kubrick and star Shelley Duvall earned for their efforts. Critics did not swarm in universal praise of the film. Roger Ebert? Yes. Pauline Kael? No. Its $44 million box office tally fell short of the $100 million baseline for “blockbuster” status back in the early ’80s (a milestone achieved by Alien in 1979). The Empire Strikes Back, released the same Memorial Day weekend in 1980, out-grossed The Shining nearly 10 times over during its original global theatrical release. For another crazy stat, The Shining’s budget estimates range from $12 million to as high as $19 million, thanks to Kubrick’s meticulous ways. The much larger scale of Empire cost only $18 million. Alien was a paltry $11 million.

Nonetheless, The Shining is now widely considered a masterpiece and last year it was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

That original movie was as short on compelling narrative and empathetic characters as it was long on indelible style. Kubrick filled the movie with eyefuls of visual candy — nifty camerawork thanks to the then relatively new Steadicam and imagery that has gained icon status. The creepiness of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel was even revisited in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One last year.

It’s a love letter to the craft of filmmaking, but it leaves the story out to freeze in the snow. The biggest problem is The Shining isn’t scary.

It’s a little ironic, then, much the same can be said of Doctor Sleep. It’s slickly produced and nice to look at, but there isn’t a lot to care about. The biggest problem is Doctor Sleep isn’t scary.

Heeere’s Danny

Even though King didn’t like Kubrick’s vision, its influence is felt heavily in Doctor Sleep. Almost patronizingly, the movie begins with the same musical cue as The Shining. It’s an overhead shot of a camper in a park. The camera moves in to ground level. Nice, but not the same sensation as the aerial footage that opened The Shining (and scraps of which closed Blade Runner in 1982). But, have no fear, that too will reappear.

It’s a slow burn as a whole bunch of setup puts the story’s players and elements in place. It’s back to 1980 and Danny (now Roger Dale Floyd; then, Danny Lloyd — he gets a cameo here as an unrelated spectator) and his mom, Wendy (then, Shelley Duvall; now, Alex Essoe) have moved to Florida in an effort to put the horrifying events of the Overlook behind them — and to hopefully never, ever see snow again.

Danny’s still learning how to control his shine; he was seeing dead people long before Cole Sear entered the pop culture consciousness. Dick Hallorann (then, Scatman Crothers; now, Carl Lumbly) returns to offer him a piece of advice — a mind trick — that comes in quite handy as the movie plods toward its climax.

After those childhood scenes, it’s a fast-forward to 2011 and Danny’s now portrayed by Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin). Danny’s had it rough; his mom passed away when he was 20. He’s become a lost soul, haggard. A drunkard. A little promiscuous. His wandering takes him to New Hampshire and a fresh start as an orderly in a nursing home. That’s where he earns the nickname “Doctor Sleep.” He — and the home’s white cat — can sense when a person is about to cross over.

Back to Boulder

Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson)
Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson)

Witchcraft. Child abductions. The shine. Fear. A blackboard serving as an eerie messaging service between Danny and a young girl with the shine.

The story’s slow drip covers all of those elements during eight years in New Hampshire, then finally takes Danny into 2019 and a return to the Overlook Hotel, long-since condemned. It’s now a dilapidated place. The approach mimics Kubrick’s visual cues as aerial shots follow Danny’s progress driving toward the hotel. The synapses fire on the nostalgia, on the recollections of Kubrick’s movie. They don’t really fire on Doctor Sleep as a standalone experience.

That thought takes on more significance given one of the movie’s central components: a coven of witches abduct people in order to suck their lifeforce — their “steam” — and thereby gain a certain level of immortality. As the seductive witch Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible — Fallout) says, “eat well, live long.”

Oh, but wait a minute. Doctor Sleep’s most interesting line of dialogue — and, in turn, its most interesting idea — almost slips right on by; it refers to the decaying quality of that steam. The witches have to continually pursue younger and younger victims. That’s collateral damage from people living increasingly dulled lives; sensations are relegated to Netflix and smartphones. People aren’t “living” like they used to; they’re dying inside at an increasingly younger age. Ostensibly, media consumption is sucking the life out of people before the witches can get to them. (Okay, King also throws in pain meds and alcohol as additional debilitating addictions.)

If only more had been done with that idea. It ties in well with another leading notion: finding the strength to overcome one’s fears. It’s a major theme in It, and it was also explored far more effectively in Andy Muschietti’s two-film adaptation of It.

We All Shine On

The entire story is a build up to the trip back to the Overlook.

It’s a little sketchy as to why Dan and his new friend, 13-year-old Abra (Kyliegh Curran), couldn’t find someplace a little more local to have that fateful confrontation with Rose and the forces of e-vil. It’s a good thing the hotel’s no longer in business as a high-end resort; that’d be disruptive to business (again). And it’s a major convenience the place hadn’t been razed at some point during all the decades of decay. It’s also good for old time’s sake Danny returns to the Overlook in the dead of winter. Winter is so much scarier than summer. Well, if it’s done right.

Given Danny returns to the Overlook, all of those sets have been meticulously restored (Kubrick would be proud). Danny takes the Cook’s tour down memory lane, returning to the expansive reception area, the grand ballroom, the boiler room, the kitchen. Room 237 (217 in King’s universe). There’s the recognizable carpet pattern. The devil is, as they say, in the details.

Again, the sensations surround the nostalgia surrounding Kubrick’s vision, not the urgency of Danny’s story. There is no urgency. Not at Doctor Sleep’s fairly lethargic pace.

Balancing out the “stabs” at horror is a thought of comfort, a thought that we all go on after this temporary stay on Earth. Ultimately, as legend tells it, King’s inspiration was John Lennon’s Instant Karma, with the lyric, “We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.” As with the steam theme, so much more could’ve been done with this comforting assurance.

Doctor Sleep should’ve served as a more holistic story of horror balanced with hope.

• Box office and budget data supplied by BoxOfficeMojo.