‘Room 237’ Review: The Secrets of the Universe, as Hidden in ‘The Shining’

Documentary goes down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and secret meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s classic adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel

Last Updated: March 27, 2013 @ 10:34 PM

If you thought “The Shining” was simply Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s novel, you are apparently wrong, at least according to the never-seen interviewees of the new documentary “Room 237.” The movie is really an indictment of the U.S. government’s genocide of the indigenous population. Or it’s the director’s attempt to tell a story about the Nazi holocaust. Or it’s Kubrick’s confession that he helped to fake the Apollo moon landing.

Gaze into the abyss for too long, Nietzsche once noted, and it gazes into you, and “Room 237” feels half like a “Da Vinci Code”–esque unraveling of signs and symbols and half like a cautionary tale of what happens when you watch the same movie over and over and over again. In the final analysis, this is more a glorified DVD extra than a feature film, but movie nerds (and Kubrick buffs in particular) will enjoy at least some of the hair-splitting, whether or not you believe in the theories espoused within.

Also read: 'The Shining': 33 Years Later, 'Room 237' Asks Why Moviegoers Can't Leave the Overlook

Director Rodney Ascher (“The S from Hell”) employs voice-overs of his subjects talking about their pet theories about “The Shining” and what it really means, and the marriage of description and depiction works very well, especially for moments that would escape the casual viewer. Whether it’s a visual joke (intended or otherwise) involving Barry Nelson and an in-box or a background poster that might or might not depict a minotaur, Ascher points out the minutiae that obsessives have zeroed in on.

Whether or not Kubrick would have endorsed these alternate readings of his film, he certainly would have enjoyed the fact that his reputation for perfectionism has apparently shielded him from ever having made a mistake.

“Room 237” points out any number of continuity errors (chairs that disappear, typewriters that change color, even architectural layouts that make no sense), but according to the interviewees, these aren’t goofs but rather clues. What would be a flub in the hands of a lesser director can only be signifiers of greater hidden truths when committed by Kubrick.

Amusing and compelling as “Room 237” often is, it all begins to wear a bit thin. Perhaps if we’d gotten to see the faces of people espousing their theories, we could judge for ourselves if they’re visionaries or just plain nuts, but all we get are more and more film clips — sped up, slowed down, frozen, overlapping. I found myself torn between wanting to see “The Shining” again immediately and never, ever wanting to see it again.

Other people’s obsessions can certainly be fascinating, but all this starts to feel like the cinematic equivalent of being stuck at a dinner party next to someone who can expound for hours about his personal theories regarding the Kennedy assassination. It’s great if you happen to share that interest; otherwise, it’s a long night of “Uh huh, really, you don’t say.”