Two years ago, my esteemed colleague Anne Billson wrote of her weariness at the ubiquity of references in popular culture to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. She charted the film’s journey from critical contempt and befuddlement to belated appreciation, and how that mirrored her own defrosting towards it as she went from seeing what it wasn’t (a faithful adaption of Stephen King’s novel) to appreciating it for what it was — a film with its own merits not necessarily derived from the book, including scenes she describes as “little masterpieces of unease.”
With the release of Room 237, a documentary about obsessive fans of the movie and their various theories about it, the scales then tipped the other way again as she realised that “otherwise normal people seemed as obsessed [with The Shining] as Jack Torrance had been with the Overlook.”
What a grump, eh? Well, no. I feel the same way. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether anyone has seen any other films except for The Shining. The evidence suggests not. First there were this year’s Oscars, during which the Academy used a mock commercial for the Overlook Hotel to promote its own museum. Now, with the release of Steven Spielberg’s virtual reality adventure Ready Player One, which makes copious use of Kubrick’s film in an extended sequence set inside it, I’ve finally reached the point where I can overlook the Overlook no longer. It’s become the Japanese knotweed of cinema: it’s everywhere.
Plenty of films get referenced repeatedly — Star Wars, Jaws, Pulp Fiction and a second Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, are probably the titles rounding out the rest of the top five of most alluded to movies. But there is something particularly insular about this Shining obsession, which seems (as Anne suggested) to mimic those same obsessive, introspective tendencies found in its main character.
Perhaps that makes it the ideal choice for Ready Player One, which takes place largely in the VR world. For much of the film, the characters are not in contact with one another except in the digital realm, which explains why the picture is like watching a stranger playing a videogame for two hours. The hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), spends most of his time strapped into his VR headset in a hollowed-out vehicle languishing in a scrapyard. In one sequence, he and his co-adventurers enter the world of The Shining, roaming around inside its various sets: the great hall where the typewriter is still sitting with a fastidiously typed page — “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — in the roller, the corridor that fills with gushing blood, Room 237 itself.
In Ernest Cline’s source novel, the task in this section of the story was related to the 1983 adventure WarGames, which Wade had to act out from memory. The screenplay, credited to Cline and Zak Penn, changed the central movie reference to Blade Runner, though this was jettisoned when Blade Runner 2049 hove into view. As there was already a Spielberg/Kubrick connection (the two were friends, and Spielberg brought Kubrick’s long-gestating project AI Artificial Intelligence to fruition two years after the latter’s death), The Shining was a natural third-time-lucky choice.
Lucky for whom? Surely not those who care about the original film. Seeing these new characters trampling and trespassing all over the footage, and its assorted computer-generated replicas, calls to mind the old advertising trick of digitally resurrecting long-dead movie stars (Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart) for use in modern-day ad campaigns. Nor does the Shining sequence do anything much to raise the excitement levels in Ready Player One; if anything, it makes the film seem to be pursuing a well-trodden path trodden by everything from The Simpsons and Spaced to Family Guy and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Even allowing for Spielberg’s emphasis in the picture on nostalgia, the brave new world of VR still looks suspiciously like same old, same old.
Perhaps the only beneficiaries of this Shining mania will be those younger viewers unfamiliar with Kubrick, who will be encouraged to watch it after seeing Ready Player One. But it’s hardly an obscure work, and these hypothetical impressionable youngsters would have chanced upon it sooner or later. (Though if even a handful of them use it as a stepping stone to Kubrick’s masterpiece, Barry Lyndon, all this may have been worth it.)
I still stand by what I wrote in the New Statesman about The Shining when it was re-released in 2012: “To be fully appreciated, it must be seen in the cinema for its spatial power and the sedated sweep of its Steadicam photography. But it’s a must-hear as well as a must-see: the screeching electronic score and intricate sound design forms a sonic labyrinth every bit as terrifying as the physical one into which Danny is pursued by his axe-wielding father.”
It’s a big world out there, though, with movies stretching back more than a hundred years. If we don’t venture beyond the Overlook, we risk, like Jack, being trapped there forever — and ever, and ever.