Room 237 review

Possible messages in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are explored in a new documentary. Here’s our review of the compelling Room 237...

You can’t beat a good conspiracy theory. They’re the gradually forming myths of the modern age, an attempt to find an oblique sort of logic in the shocking and the extraordinary. Take the lunar landing of 1969 – the year humankind first put a foot on the Moon. How is it possible that, in a pre-silicon chip age, we could have successfully put a man on our nearest neighbour, and brought him home again with barely a hitch? According to conspiracy theorists, the official version of events is simply too good to be true; instead, they say, the landings were a hoax.

This brings us to Room 237, a documentary by Rodney Ascher which examines the numerous conspiracy theories and outlandish interpretations behind one of director Stanley Kubrick’s most celebrated films, The Shining.

One of the more colourful stories regarding Kubrick is that, in the 1960s, when he was collaborating with Arthur C Clarke on his ‘proverbial good sci-fi movie’ 2001: A Space Odyssey, high-ranking members of NASA approached the director with a proposal. Quite unable to pull off the technical feat of putting a man on the moon, they wanted to fake a lunar landing instead. With Russia already ahead in the space race, it was important that America retain its technological prestige, or risk looking weak at a critical stage in the Cold War.

It’s said that Kubrick then used the techniques he brought to his sci-fi opus to create an extraordinarily convincing mock-up of the lunar surface, complete with vehicles, floating space dust and semi-weightless astronauts. Although sworn to secrecy by the government, conspiracy theorists argue that Kubrick left all sorts of subtle clues to the fakery in his movies – particularly in his 1980 horror film, The Shining. 

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Room 237 explores this and other theories surrounding Kubrick’s film, including the suggestion that it’s an allegory about the Holocaust, or a cleverly veiled retelling of the genocidal colonisation of America by white Europeans. 

Cut together using footage from The Shining and wittily-applied snippets from other movies (including Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and curiously, Lamberto Bava’s Demons), Room 237’s interpretations are relayed by the theorists themselves; we never see their faces, and in some instances, their contributions appear to have been literally phoned in, with one speaker having to stop mid-flow because his young son’s making noises in the background.

This may make the documentary sound cheap or scrappily made, but I’d wager these moments are left in deliberately; Ascher’s marriage of voice-over and imagery is at times extremely funny, and echoes Adam Curtis’s style of filmmaking in its more oblique moments.

The contributors’ evidence for their theories is often flimsy at best, but this is what makes Room 237 so entertaining in its best moments. The lunar landing’s theorist, for example, points to the Apollo 11 home-knit sweater as a sign that Kubrick is attempting a confession in the film (cue guffaws of amusement from the screening room audience).

Another interviewee points to the Overlook Hotel’s impossible architecture and frequent references to mazes as a sign that The Shining is alluding to Greek mythology; in one of the documentary’s most amusing sound-bites, playwright Juli Kurns says of a poster glimpsed in one scene, “That’s not a skier! That’s a minotaur!” (Cue more chortles.) 

The evidence for the native American genocide theory? A few carefully placed tins of Calumet baking powder sitting in the Overlook Hotel’s larder. The WWII Holocaust? The presence of a German typewriter. Someone even suggests that Kubrick had somehow left an airbrushed image of his own face in the clouds, skilfully hidden in the movie’s opening credits.

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Room 237, then, doesn’t so much give various theorists a platform for their ideas (though it does partly fulfil this function), but rather expose just how revered and mythologised Stanley Kubrick has become as an artist. Kubrick was an obsessive filmmaker, and his movies inspire obsession themselves. At least one person interviewed for Room 237 admits to seeing The Shining dozens of times, while others describe their experience of seeing it for the first time as being so powerful that they had to clutch the armrests of their seat to stay in place.

The Shining, like other Kubrick movies, has become a Rorschach test; the documentary’s contributors all see with in it something that reflects their own personal worldview – it’s history professor Geoffrey Cocks who sees the film’s supposed allusions to the horrors of World War II, for example.

Room 237, then, is really about how conspiracy theories and modern myths are created. When The Shining was released in 1980, it was just another horror film, albeit one made by an extremely respected moviemaker. As the documentary points out, its reviews weren’t overwhelmingly glowing; in fact, even one or two of the contributors say they were at first nonplussed by Kubrick’s handling of Stephen King’s novel.

It’s in the years since that the mythology around Kubrick and The Shining has grown, like a snowball rolling down a mountain. And like the Kennedy assassination, or Roswell, or the lunar landings, the further back in history the original event recedes, the more outlandish and fanciful the legends surrounding it become.

Room 237 isn’t a perfect documentary. It’s a little too long at around 100 minutes or so, and would have benefited from a slightly tighter edit. But as an exploration of a landmark genre film, and how it’s gradually moved beyond admiration to a point where even possible continuity errors are now symbols of cosmic importance, it’s a sometimes compelling, often amusing achievement.

The film depicts The Shining as a maze of hidden meanings and possible interpretations. And like Jack Nicholson’s character, whose left trapped forever in the hotel’s supernatural grip, so audiences are still captivated by the movie more than 30 years later.

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Room 237 is out in UK cinemas on the 26th October.

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4 out of 5