Doctor Strange Review: Stranger Than Science Fiction

Director Scott Derrickson at least attempts to break through the Marvel-lousy violent orgy of physical-warfare CGI.

Director: Scott Derrickson

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong

Rating: 2 stars

In the latest South Park season, a fruit called ‘Member Berries’ becomes a hot-selling item across America. Purple grapes with wistful grins [“ ‘Member Star Wars? ‘Member the good old Watergate days? ‘Member Michael Jackson?”] induce waves of dizzy nostalgia in those who consume them, satirizing the inexplicable pop-culture epidemic of monetized sentimentality and rehashed packages.

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Not surprisingly, J.J. Abrams, the man behind the Star Trek and Star Wars reboots, is the secret force behind these “tasty morsels of organic nostalgia.”

I subscribe to this (slightly crude) line of thought.

It’s a bit tiring to not have an original generation of comic figures. The Marvel and DC cinematic universes seem to have a lifetime supply of these lazy berries. Over the last decade, no “classic” superhero-comic source material – no matter how green or smart-alecky, ancient, flawed, dark, classic, childish or downright boorish – has been spared. They’ve all been conveyer-belted into the self-aware-film-adaptation factory. It’s another matter that DC’s stock of berries became hash brownies after Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

Over the last decade, no “classic” superhero-comic source material – no matter how green or smart-alecky, ancient, flawed, dark, classic, childish or downright boorish – has been spared.

Marvel, whose cheeky (creator) Stan Lee acting cameos are corny Hollywood equivalents of Karan Johar self-referencing his own filmography, has long thrived on DC’s failure to capitalize on the more iconic gang of crusaders.

Heroes like Ironman, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Spiderman, Black Panther and, now, Doctor Strange, have their own loyal niche set of fans, but were never quite as mainstream as Superman and Batman’s vogue-rogue legends. The Marvel force of filmmakers, to their credit, have somewhat altered this perception. Their hat-tippy self-reverential tones have outlasted DC’s painfully convoluted Snyder-verse noise.

But for folks like me, who’ve no fond romantic remembrances of first-edition paperbacks – and who’ve quickly developed an allergy towards repetitive horror and superhero tropes – these experiences can feel quite disorienting. They offer nothing new, year after year, except for some eye-popping set pieces and increasingly self-conscious witty one-liners. The adult in me has begun to roll his eyes at the child in me.

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With Doctor Strange, director Scott Derrickson at least attempts to break through the Marvel-lousy violent orgy of physical-warfare CGI. So spirituality is genre-sized and psychology is science-fictioned, making for a visually trippy cocktail of psychedelic “action.” It’s the kind of loud mindscape-abusing sorcery you’re not expected to understand; just go with the imaginative flow and it’s perhaps possible to enjoy cities being folded instead of annihilated for a change. As an origin story, this is still way more coherent than the recent extended-universe franchise-specific money-spinners.

An arrogant and wealthy neurosurgeon, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), loses the use of his hands in a strategically cinematic road accident. Filthy rich geniuses always have a higher calling, after all. After medical science fails him, he resorts to a last-ditch Bruce-Wayne-ish trip to an enigmatic monastery-sort called Kamar-Taj in Nepal.

As is often the case with wounded souls finding their true calling, his juvenility is slowly broken down and he is taken under the wing of an important-looking sorcerer of sorcerers, The Ancient One (a bald-headed, hypnotic Tilda Swinton). His hand-healing goal soon makes way for his reluctant Chosen-One avatar in an intergalactic war against evil Kaecilius (a wry Mads Mikkelson), a greedy former protégé of the Ancient One (Kung-Fu Panda much?).

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Their first combat sequence is pretty innovative, eventually numbed by a lengthy expository passage between the two, presumably helping us mere non-comic-following mortals to gain some context.

Throw in a former surgeon flame (Rachel McAdams; ageless), Kamar-Taj loyalists like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor; brandishing a strange South-Asian accent) and poker-faced librarian Wong (Benedict Wong; comic relief), as well as the mandatory violently-computer-generated all-encompassing villain called Dormammu of the Dark Dimension (which I initially thought was a sly reference to the blockbuster-necessitating 3D format) – and Doctor Strange becomes the kind of intelligent-looking slick-moving saga that insists it is being viscerally different.

At one point, two astral bodies (spirits, basically) kick each other across a hospital room containing their physical bodies. One can only marvel at the amusing thought-blurb of the conception-stage writer-room discussions.

As an origin story, this is still way more coherent than the recent extended-universe franchise-specific money-spinners.

There comes a stage in each of these standalone films where viewers are made to emotionally disembark, while mystical characters spout in-house clues and world-rescuing terms only to eventually abridge the final Avengers: Infinity War (2018) installment. It becomes more about how convincing the performers are, more about why they fit in than what they’re saying, despite acting out deluded bits of pulpy 1960s Armageddon fantasies.

This film scores here with its smart casting, to a point where you stop wondering why such distinguished actors agreed to jump onto a popcorn vehicle. An ethical conflict here and an existential voice-over there, along with striking imagery of plot-narratives unfolding between loops of time (which the Source-Code and Edge-of-Tomorrow nerd in me approves), makes Strange its own stylistic entity.

Until, of course, the trademark post-credit sequence, which is more ominous than promising. One can almost imagine the Avengers cooing: come to Papa!

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Between fantastical jargon like mirror dimensions, astral planes, sanctums, wormholes, portals, space-time continuums, infinity stones and mystical destroyers, Benedict Cumberbatch’s egotistical Ironman-meets-House-MD persona keeps us in the game – if only just. He shares more chemistry with his eccentric levitation cloak than with most humans in the film.

His Hugh-Laurie-esque American accent takes a while to sink in, but he looks fairly involved in the smorgasbord of mind-numbing IMAX-centric illusions. There is logically no better Marvel face for him to seek his chatty British teeth into.

In some warped parallel universe where I’m eagerly devouring member berries and sighing, I’m sure this is a watchable film. All three head-splitting dimensions of it, too.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s egotistical Ironman-meets-House-MD persona keeps us in the game – if only just. He shares more chemistry with his eccentric levitation cloak than with most humans in the film.

Unfortunately, I ‘member Inception. I don’t want to ‘member any other kind of mind-bending language. And I’m someone who dreams of an era where all we can do is remember, but not act on it: creating new universes, instead of creating universes within existing universes. Until then, what doesn’t kill me only makes me…stranger.

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