Doctor Strange (2016) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins
Small role/cameo: Benjamin Bratt, Stan Lee
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Review published November 3, 2016
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as New York-based neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch, Zoolander 2), a big shot at his profession with as big an ego to flaunt. He has a level of cocky, self-satisfied smarm not too dissimilar to Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Iron Man films. His job is, literally, in his hands, until a car accident occurs that leaves him without much use of them for surgery purposes, causing him to go into an emotional and psychological tailspin if he cannot figure out a solution.
Western medicine offers no answers, so he seeks alternate ways, and that leads him to follow a path toward a rumored miracle breakthrough, taking him to Kathmandu, Nepal. It is there that he connects with a monastic order of master magicians led by the powerful mystic, the Ancient One (Swinton, A Bigger Splash), who proceeds to open Strange's mind to powers within him that are far greater than the mere physical. However, a wayward former student of the Ancient One (Mikkelsen, The Hunt) has gone against their teachings and has removed pages from one of the most sacred of the magical library's many tomes, one that taps into the Dark Dimension that may bring to Earth dangerous forces that even the most powerful sorcerers on the planet can't thwart.
One of the best qualities of Doctor Strange is that, with the exception of a passing reference and extra scenes in the credits, there's almost nothing within the film that refers to the dozen-plus other MCU properties that have come before, which makes it a perfect one to take in for those who are uninitiated. As such, like another second-tier Marvel title before it, Guardians of the Galaxy, that allows for some deviation from the core Avengers films in terms of how things will look and sound, giving us a movie that feels organically different in visual design than most we've seen before, even if it still retains the same formula structure of the rest of the MCU features.
Some of the credit for the film's success is due to the talent brought on board, starting with a phenomenal cast of actors, including Oscar-nominated thespians like Benedict Cumberatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Triple 9), and Rachel McAdams (Spotlight). Cumberbatch is quite good in the role in terms of giving Strange some range of emotion as well as a good physical presence. He even handles some of the humor with a sense of self-awareness that what he's saying is essentially lame material. Also on board for the first time in an MCU film is horror-maestro Scott Derrickson, who shows that, when called upon, he's quite adept at delivering a fairly mainstream Hollywood blockbuster with skill and visual style. Doctor Strange is so fluidly efficient that it might make one forget the disaster that was Derrickson's 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Derrickson contributes to the screenplay along with frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill, who scripted the Sinister films, along with Jon Spaihts, who has taken on Prometheus and Passengers to some critical success. Dialogue isn't a strong-suit of Doctor Strange, but the storyline does offer up some good thematic material to go along with its comic-book goofiness, and when married with a jaw-dropping psychedelic aesthetic, it all adds up to a fun time at the cinema. The plot borrows many narrative elements from The Matrix, which itself, truth be told, borrowed many elements of its own from comic books and martial arts films, so it's hard to qualify this feature as a direct rip-off. It's another origin story we're familiar with in the world of comic book heroes, but given the emphasis on magic and alternate dimensions, there are many other toys in the toy box to play with to keep it all feeling like something new to the universe of big-screen superheroes.
However, the real star of the film happens to be the incredible visual effects of the film, which borrows heavily from the city-bending sequences of Christopher Nolan's Inception but makes it its own through the sheer ingenuity of the complex, kaleidoscopic, M.C. Escher-esque aesthetic design that has the entire planet behaving like the world's most elaborate Rubik's Cube. The film also builds to a climax in which magic skills are put to good use, as is the intellect of the protagonists, in trying to thwart the powerful adversaries from perhaps destroying the planet on the pretense of bestowing everlasting life to all. That it manages to still retain a certain wit and ingenuity during blockbuster moments where others put all of that aside for generic explosive action is perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of Doctor Strange. While it feels important while watching in real time, underneath, it's all nutty nonsense, yet all done in the best ways possible, thanks to the real-life magicians who've crafted the visual effects sorcery to complement Doctor Strange's stunning astral journeys.
©2016 Vince Leo