Being a “professional critic” is a tricky thing.
Movies, TV shows, games, books, music – these are all works of art the “speak” to people in different ways; having someone tell you how you should feel about them, then, is a bit of an oxymoron. In my experience, the best critics don’t try to push their agenda or their feelings on you (even though they may share those thoughts with you a little bit) – rather, they try and provide insight and information in a way that might help you learn more about the piece of media being discussed, and whether or not you might (or might not) want to partake of said piece of media.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, to be sure; a dangerous thing, in my mind, is a critic with a loud negative opinion. There are ways to be critical of something without being rude, condescending, or mean-spirited about it. At our press screening for ‘Doctor Sleep,’ I sat near another critic in the press section of the theater who was harumph-ing often through the film – starting at the opening first few notes of the intro song of the movie, no less – and during the final credits let it be known that he thought the film was long, boring, and generally displeasing to him. Whether he intends to or not, his review of this movie will likely come across with one or more of the attributes I mentioned in the second sentence of this paragraph.
Like I said, though: works of art are subjective, and different people will get different things out of ‘Doctor Sleep.’ I, for one, thought the movie was highly enjoyable; at a length of 2 hours and 31 minutes, it may have ran slightly longer than it needed to, yes, but it was far from boring, keeping me on the edge of my seat and excited for each new reveal and turn from the retro-1980s-styled Warner Brothers opening logo to the wind-howling isolation of the closing credits. I’m a big fan of the 1980 film ‘The Shining,’ of which ‘Doctor Sleep’ is a “mostly sequel” – the Stanley Kubrick-directed film had many differences from the 1977 Stephen King novel it was based upon, and ‘Doctor Sleep’ screenwriter/director Mike Flanagan has stated that he worked hard to make this film fall somewhere in the middle of being a sequel/successor of both. ‘Doctor Sleep’ itself is based on King’s own written story of the same name, published in 2013.
The film follows its main character, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), on his journey post-‘Shining.’ Danny is the son of Jack Torrance (portrayed in ‘The Shining’ by Jack Nicholson), who went insane and tried to kill Danny and his mother during their time caretaking The Overlook Hotel, an isolated – and somewhat supernatural – building in the Colorado mountains (as shown in the events of the 1980 film).
In ‘Doctor Sleep,’ Danny is battling demons of two different kinds: internal ones, fueled by alcoholism that he uses as a means to dull the memories of his childhood and as a way to suppress his “shine,” the sixth sense he has that allows him to communicate with both spirits and other similarly-gifted people. I mentioned two kinds of demons, because this wouldn’t be a very effective horror story if there weren’t actual demons to battle, and there are: when The Overlook Hotel was shut down and abandoned shortly after Danny’s ordeal there, some of the spirits have been working to hunt him down.
Unbeknownst to Danny, there are other evil forces at play in the world as well: a group of what’s best described as “psychic vampires” who enjoy a longevity of life thanks to their ability to feed of the life essence that people with the “shine” give off as they are dying. The group, led by the rather evil Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) grow hungrier year after year, as their source of food seemingly becomes more and more scarce. When the group detect the presence of Abra (Kyleigh Curran), the strongest “shine” they have ever seen, Abra fights back; she psychically connects with Danny, who was worked to become sober and put his “shine” to good use helping the elderly and infirm as they pass on. Danny believes that the only way to have a fighting chance at defeating Rose’s group is to take the battle to the place where all of them have the most to fear: the abandoned grounds of The Overlook Hotel.
None of the above synopsis is spoiler-y, as this has all been fairly well laid out in the film’s marketing; what the film does effectively, though, is take you on this journey while exploring so much more that the characters have to offer, and this is something that Kubrick’s 1980 film lacked – probably the biggest knock on the overall-still-excellent film. ‘Doctor Sleep’ gives you lots to ponder, from the nature of human death to the depths of a human’s soul, to what it means to truly live and be alive.
What I’ve left the most information out about, of course, is the film’s climactic sequences: the return to The Overlook. While it almost feels like, in these last 45-ish minutes, the movie takes such a left turn that it’s almost like watching two different movies of the course of the 2.5 hours, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; the first section of the film does such an intriguing job of creating its own lore for these evils and elements that you almost forget you’re watching a tale set in ‘The Shining’ universe… until you hear the iconic ’80s synth-heavy soundtrack and get near-shot-for-shot flyover sequences of the Colorado mountainsides, and then you know that things are about to get extra creepy. I literally got goosebumps during this and much of the latter portion of the movie, and Flanagan and his creative team deserve all the credit in the world for effectively bringing us back to a movie that it seemed there was no way we would ever get back to.
When it’s said and done, fans of the original film and/or novel will find much to enjoy with ‘Doctor Sleep.’ I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to watch this movie without having experienced ‘The Shining’ in some form before – but you’ll definitely get infinitely more out of this new film the more familiar you are with the source material. The cast is great, McGregor especially (isn’t he always, though?); the film is stylistically equal parts homage-creepy and modern-tense; and it truly feels like a story that’s worth telling, an element that many modern films seem to lack. King himself, who famously has long been displeased with the Kubrick interpretation of ‘The Shining,’ says that ‘Doctor Sleep’ “redeems” the film series for him. High praise!
If it sounds like ‘Doctor Sleep’ might be up your alley, then by all means, go check it out, and shine on.