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Friday, November 4, 2016

Movie Review: #DrStrange

Doctor Strange is a trippy, fantastical voyage that also has something to say.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the idea of yet another superhero comicbook-inspired throwdown has you wishing for more, your prayers are about to be answered: Doctor Strange is a wild mind-trip that actually has something to say about the future of this film universe without bashing you over the head with a hammer or a giant green fist.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon, able to save the next damaged human but also ready to boast about it. When he's involved in a savage car crash that leaves his hands permanently wrecked (and his job prospects a total zero), Strange spends his fortune looking for a traditional cure. Journeying to the east, he meets Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who introduces him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorceress who employs truly magical means to correct people's ailments. Strange is unconvinced, until The Ancient One sends him on a trip across space and even dimensions, forcing him to realize that his mission as a doctor was merely preparation for something bigger. Strange soon learns that the greatest threat to the Earth comes from the former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to break a spell protecting the planet from forces beyond imagination. As Strange, Mordo, and The Ancient One battle Kaecilius, loyalties and even time itself will be tested, while a Sorcerer Supreme will rise from the ashes of his former self.

While the first 15 minutes of Doctor Strange are going to seem bland and even a bit familiar to audiences (think Iron Man and Thor), it's gratefully a far different experience once Strange learns of the astral plane and other dimensions. No, let me rephrase that: it's a mind-fuck, a visual spectacle unequaled in its grandeur this year. Director Scott Derrickson - who expertly helmed Sinister - laces our bong with a heavy dose of competence, giving us time to enjoy his strange visual machinations, including Strange's initial trip through those same planes of existence. Derrickson also bends the reality of New York in a way we haven't seen since Inception, which is actually done quite well. Fight sequences take place on vacillating building facades and on a kaleidoscope of mirror dimensions that our cast does a good job of making look as real as CGI can.

It's fair to admit that the cast for Doctor Strange is perhaps one of the best to star in a Marvel origin flick, although some might think that some of their talents are wasted. Cumberbatch is Strange, both in his flippant (perhaps even Sherlock-ian) manner, but it's unclear why Derrickson and Marvel forced an American accent on him. Still, he's terrific and utters several comedic lines with perfect suavity. Ejiofor, McAdams, and Wong are serviceable if ultimately disposable, only because Strange doesn't given them enough time to shadow in their characters. But Swinton makes out the best here, giving life to The Ancient One in a way I hadn't expected from reading the comics. She's both teacher and keeper of some dark secrets that force one student to abandon Strange and provide a potential villain (again, let's hope!) for the sequel.

Moreover, Doctor Strange has something to say: this universe is not just filled with Earth-bound, spandex-wearing heroes in bright colors, but that other dimensions exist, filled with individuals that plan to cause our planet significant troubles going forward. And that pain won't just come through might, but through honest, genuine magic: whoever wields it better will win the day. We've seen a similar message from Thor to Guardians of the Galaxy, but with Doctor Strange it's like a whole basement has existed under our feet that we accidentally discover after falling into a well (hold on, that sounds familiar). If Marvel Studios wants to survive post-Infinity War, it needed to boldly expand itself, which Strange does so effectively.

But, Doctor Strange doesn't fully implement its own plan, suffering from a couple of problems that are never fully resolved. We never get a sense for how long Strange's journey to enlightenment actually takes, nor do we understand why he was chosen by the Ancient One. There's a suggestion that he was recruited, but again the reasoning isn't clear at all. Was he destined to supplant The Ancient One, or a bystander who comes along at the right time? And why is his magic so hard to come by for so long, before it suddenly doesn't? Doctor Strange could have actually used another 10 minutes to properly explain these, and it would have been a far better film. It would have also been more interesting had Strange's crippling accident been part of a larger plan by The Ancient One to bring Stange into the fold. I was waiting for that bit of conspiracy and was a little bummed when it never materialized.

The one thing that isn't lacking are substantive bad guys. Mikkelsen is creepy and motivated to cause chaos (which is actually explained), while his boss (which we'll hold off on sharing their identity) is true evil and probably should go bowling with Thanos. Kaecilis and his bossman's motivations are clear: immortality, the Earth, and even The Infinity Stones. And yes, we do get another Stone reveal, which should satisfy comicheads (at least it did to this one). Doctor Strange Stick around for two end credits scenes, both of which do much to establish future films (and possibly a Strange sequel?). With perhaps its boldest film yet, Marvel is dealing big cards in Phase 3, but its unclear whether casual audiences are ready for this kind of expansion to the MCU. Even though I found its time trippiness immensely rewarding.

Doctor Strange sends an unequivocal message to both the MCU faithful and casual audiences: get ready for something big. And although it suffers from a shorter runtime - which I hope a Director's Cut will solve - it still manages to blow your mind with incredible effects that deserve every bit of your IMAX/XD/RPX 3D money. Performances are solid and a couple of cameos are some of the best we've seen. Let's just hope audiences adhere to the warnings of not seeing this under the influence, for its spectacle might be overwhelming in parts.

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence and has a runtime of 115 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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