Film Review: DOCTOR STRANGE
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdam, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Produced by Kevin Feige
Executive producers, Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Stephen Broussard, Charles Newirth, Stan Lee
Director of photography, Ben Davis
Production designer, Charles Wood
Edited by Wyatt Smith, Sabrino Plisco
Visual effects supervisor, Stephane Ceretti
Music by Michael Giacchino
This year, 2016, has been an above-average year for fantasy, science-fiction, comic book and superhero movies, with an unusually strong string of films in these genres that have overcome the bombast, lack of storytelling, outright blandness and over-emphasis on special effects and tired action sequences that have plagued and destroyed several prior sequels, reboots, remakes and re-imaginings that temporarily threatened to bring down the entire sub-culture of films in these genres. And this year’s array of entertaining films in these genres follows the welcome, also above-average releases of the equally-entertaining “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Ant-Man” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and other quality genre films, in recent years. Thus there is fortunate and positive news to report that Disney and Marvel’s trippy, quirky, fun, funny and wholly-entertaining “Doctor Strange,” set for a huge U.S. release on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, continues this positive trend as 2016 enters its last two months, and the film is highly recommended for its unique, original approach to the genre, fully welcoming and embracing outright mystical, spiritual and supernatural elements of time, space, consciousness, the mind and, appropriately, strange and oddball alternate worlds, while also presenting an entertaining, but still different, superhero, comic book and action film that dazzles in amazing sequences of mind-boggling, mind-blowing and stunning visual, computer and special effects.
Another interesting aspect of “Doctor Strange” is that the film is an actual movie about a comic book character that has not been presented as the title character in a full-length feature film before—even though the “Doctor Strange” character and comic books first appeared in the 1960s—now, half-a-century ago, to the continued amazement, befuddlement and shock of baby boomers now reaching their 50s, 60s and 70s. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko wisely, smartly and savvily tapped into several emerging movements and pop culture trends of the ‘60s and used them in the “Strange” comic book series to present yet another wholly original set of stories: psychedelic colors, art and artistic styles; eastern spiritualism, mysticism and religious beliefs; the counterculture in general; anti-establishment movements; the drug culture (not directly, and not so much directly about taking drugs, but riffing off of druggy themes through the comic’s overall, general trippiness and psychedlic artwork); and emerging thoughts and discussions about alternate levels of thought, mind, body, being, and consciousness related to new, differing ways to think about life and existence in general. Lee and Ditko, again, smartly latched onto these new areas of thought, religion, art, politics and philosophy and came up with the delightfully bizarro and fun “Doctor Strange” character and comics, striking gold yet again.
It’s strange, indeed, that for some reason it took half a century for the character and his world to be featured in a feature-length film.
Yet here is “Doctor Strange,” a highly-recommended, trippy, quirky time at the movies that is perfect for the weekend after Halloween and the first weekend of November, as thoughts turn to the holiday season, fall and the upcoming deluge of holiday season films. The movie’s cast and crew—most notably the literally hundreds of special, visual and computer effects artists of all types—fully embrace the “Doctor Strange” milieu, atmosphere and aura that Lee and Ditko created—as they should, of course—and they also manage to closely escape and avoid the usual trappings of comic book, action and superhero films—that over-reliance of over-wrought, dull and clichéd action sequences and special effects by making sure to make that the film’s action sequences and special effects are indeed original, unique and fresh. And it’s nice to see that filmmakers can still manage to accomplish these goals despite the near over-abundance of comic book and superhero films in general in the multiplexes, and, still, even in 2016 and recent years, the attendant and concurrent array of flops and failures in these genres. “Doctor Strange” proudly overcomes such hurdles and obstacles, rises above them, and ends up being a fun, entertaining time at the movies.
Kudos and congrats, then, do indeed need to be sent out, first, to those hundreds—and there are indeed hundreds—of visual, special, computer, matte, art effects artists who worked on “Strange.” The special effects are astounding, and they will blow away filmgoers, especially those who can afford to roll out the extra bucks for the bigger Imax screens. However—filmgoers don’t need to see “Strange” just on Imax, as the impressive special effects will still dazzle on any screen; heck, “Strange’s” special effects will dazzle on a regular television screen, they’re so excellent. But definitely see “Strange” on the big screen—it’s a movie made to be seen in a movie theater, and that’s where its amazing special effects will be most thoroughly enjoyed. The special effects’ actual contents won’t be revealed here—they are best seen as a surprise to fully enjoy their wonder—but rest assured that the special effects presented in “Doctor Strange” are so thoroughly enjoyable and wondrous to watch, they promptly become part of the story—in a real storytelling aspect, they steal some scenes, and, at times, the special effects are some of the best moments in the film.
But, again, in “Strange,” this is all okay, fine, positive, and not detrimental to the story, due to several reasons relating directly to the story, script, plot and characters. “Doctor Strange’s” story, plot and characters dabble and experiment and venture into explorations and examinations of time, space, dimension, alternate worlds, the supernatural, mysticism, spiritualism, strange otherworldly beings, the bending of time and space, disruptions to the time-space continuum, time travel, and mind-bending levels and layers of thought, consciousness, physics, matter, philosophy and psychology. These are heavy, layered and complex areas of thought, and it’s only fitting to explore all of these issues with dazzling visuals that accurately and fittingly portray the mind-bending aspects of such areas. Thus, the special effects in “Strange” meld directly to the story being told, become a part of the story, and don’t district from the story by being there simply to show off or say, “here, look what our computers can do in 2016!” Rather, the special effects aptly and smartly display what is going on in the plot and story and in the characters’ minds.
And there’s much going on in the characters’ minds in “Doctor Strange.” All of the lead characters are dealing with their own internal battles of good and evil; their own battles with existing in the regular world and other, unexplainable worlds; and their own battles of just how far the regular world that most people know should interact with, bump up against and disrupt these other, alternate, mystical and quite scary alternate worlds that exist somewhere on the other side of consciousness, time, space and dimensions. That’s quite a heavy load to bare, and that responsibility of balancing the relative safety and security of the regular world with the threats and dangers of the alternate worlds provides the basis for the movie’s story and plot.
“Doctor Strange” tells the story of a world-famous, successful, middle-aged neuro-surgeon, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent throughout, channeling Christian Bale as Batman, Tobey Maguire as Spiderman and Christopher Reeve as Superman, with all of those actors’ and characters’ attendant moral and psychological difficulties with dealing with and accepting who they really are), who is enjoying his life as a top-notch, rich and respected doctor, with all the trappings of that success—fancy cars, a fancy high-rise slick condominium, parties, girls, fancy clothes, peer respect, a great reputation, saving people’s lives in the operating room, that type of rich-doctor stuff. However, beneath all of the success lies a restless, complex soul—Strange is also arrogant, somewhat cold, stiff, difficult in relationships, and somewhat brash and even unlikeable. He soon finds himself in a situation completely opposite that of his high-flying successful neuro-surgeon life—he loses the use of the very instruments that ensure his success in the operating room, his hands. After an accident, his hands and fingers are mangled, injured, and Strange’s already-broken mind and soul are further broken and damaged.
Lost, confused, angry and even suddenly financially strapped, Strange finds himself with one possible way out of his sudden morass—a suggestion from another patient who went through similar injuries to visit Kamar-Taj, a mysterious, mystical place across the world in Nepal where mystics can strangely, uniquely heal the mind, body and soul. Strange travels to Nepal in search of this possible healing place, he eventually finds it, and there, he meets the mystical, mysterious, beguiling and enchanting The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, who portrays this character with just the right mixture of enchantment, mystery, toughness and leadership), who is the leader of an unusual, strange sect of mystic spiritualists and warriors who have solved some of the deeper mysteries of existence, who have the ability to travel to other worlds, who have solved some of life’s mysteries regarding the healing of the mind, body and soul, and who also just happen to be guarding against and fighting against simply some of the most important, dire, drastic threats to mankind and the very existence of the planet.
While undergoing mystical training under the guidance of The Ancient One, and her top lieutenants at this hidden enclave, Mordo and Wong (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong, respectively), Strange starts to learn the ways of the Kamar-Taj—how to enter other worlds, how to rise above basic levels of existence, how to leave his body, and how to alter time and space in often-dangerous ways—but he also starts to learn that all is not what it seems at the seemingly peaceful and positive Kamar-Taj. As noted, Strange soon learns that there is a deeper, darker purpose to the Kamar-Taj—nothing less than saving the world from the forces of darkness and evil. Yes, that’s clichéd, but, again, in “Strange,” the world-ending and evil-overtaking-good threats comes from a most non-cliched place—in this story, the threats of evil are presented in a story that melds areas of the supernatural, mysticism, religion, eastern philosophy, martial arts and, again, explorations of time and space. Thus, the evil threat in “Strange” is presented in unique and original ways, in terms of the story, setting, characters and plot.
“Strange” soon learns that his arrival at Kamar-Taj has more to do than just simply healing his hands and getting him back to his rich-doctor life. He is drawn directly into the battle of good versus evil and of saving the planet, working alongside The Ancient One, Mordo and Wong to battle a rogue mystic who has indeed gone to the dark side, Kaecilius, played in a delightfully, dangerously psycho and crazed portrayal by Mads Mikkelsen, who wonderfully channels the darker sides of Rutger Hauer and Christopher Walken from their more psycho roles. Mikkelsen does wonders with a look, a brief line and his physical presence, expertly displaying how an actor can convey evil and darkness with a simple expression, the way he carries himself physically, and a deep, dark look that suggests something’s a bit off, crazy and threatening here. Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is an apt villain to go up against Strange, and the battles between the two characters—physical, intellectual and philosophical—provide for some great moments in the movie.
It is up to Strange, Mordo, Wong and The Ancient One to figure out, exactly, how to defeat Kaecilius, who has tapped into the deepest, darkest and most dangerous and threatening aspects of the universe in a mistaken belief that the dark side offers the best hope for mankind, and their attempts to battle Kaecilius and the dark side form the basis for the movie’s story and plot. However, along the way, there’s plenty of time for interesting, even intellectual explorations into the aforementioned mystic areas of time, space, existence and consciousness. There’s always a danger, of course, when any medium attempts to explore these types of philosophical areas—the danger is camp, trite dialogue and lame attempts at philosophy that end up clichéd, lecturing and overly religious or condescending—but somehow the smart scriptwriters Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, who is also the film’s director, and C. Robert Cargill manage to keep the philosophzing, intellectualizing and contemplating down-to-earth, straightforward, non-religious, non-lecturing and more grounded in normal, day-to-day common sense, street smarts and basic intelligence. Thus, filmgoers won’t walk out feeling they were lectured to or talked down to, but rather, they’ll just be given some glimpses and tastes of eastern-philosophy-meets-sci-fi-and-comic-book-sensibilities, more something to think about rather than something to feel guilty about. Spaihts, Derrickson and Cargill smartly remember that this is, above all, an entertaining, fun action, comic book and super hero film.
Derrickson deserves credit, too, for carefully balancing the film’s various tenets, so he can at times, again, explore some interesting intellectual areas, but also present a lot of fun and entertainment and even underhanded humor, too. Derrickson, as a director, knows how to balance the right levels of thought, intelligence, philosophy and dialogue with the appropriate, concurrent levels of action, special effects, humor, wonder and excitement. Thus, Derrickson and the scriptwriters deliver a movie that has some underlying messages, themes and morals—of course, as all comic book and superhero movies must and do have—but they also deliver on the fun, action and excitement, too.
Mikkelsen, in the movie’s production notes, provides a good insight into the appeal of “Doctor Strange.” “Scott Derrickson pitched it to me, and he ended up saying magic and flying Kung Fu,” Mikkelsen says. “I said, ‘Hold it right there. I’m on.’ It’s a world of a 15-year-old boy’s fantasy. Everything we ever dreamt of when we were kids is what we’re doing right now on this film.” Although the Kung Fu may have been an irrefutable element, it was the story that appealed to Mikkelsen as an actor. “We’re dealing with a man who is a fantastic surgeon and who has a touch of arrogance to him,” he comments. “When something terrible happens, he has to confront his fears and his beliefs. I thought that was a very human and brilliant way of setting up a Super Hero. Let him start there and see where he goes.”
Cumberbatch, who has emerged as one of the more likable, approachable and down-to-earth actors in recent years, has a similarly smart insight into his character, according to the studio production notes:
Explaining how he was drawn to the role, Cumberbatch says, “I found Stephen Strange to be incredibly arrogant, brilliant and sort of extraordinary. He is utterly broken down to be reconstituted into the Super Hero that becomes fully fledged by the end of the movie. And there’s a lot of humor on the way. There’s a lot of action, a lot of drama. All those elements really appeal to me as an actor. So it was mainly the character arc and the journey he goes on in the film that drew me to the material.”
“I spent some time teaching in a Buddhist monastery near Darjeeling,” the actor relates, “and read things like Fritjof Capra’s ‘The Tao of Physics’ and ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig,as well as studying Buddhists texts and reading up on certain scientific books about cosmology. I got to observe extraordinary ancient ritual and wisdom right in front of me every morning and every evening. My mind as a19-year-old was really blown open by all of that. So this material immediately made sense to me.”
Offering insight into Strange’s personality, Cumberbatch says, “He does seem arrogant to the point of being unlikable but yet, somehow, you still like him. He’s got a great deal of charm. There is a sense of loss or soullessness about him very early on in the film. You see him as a lone figure at the beginning and end of this film. But by the end of the film he’s a Super Hero, and we all know that’s quite an onerous task and often quite a solitary existence. Not too many people can form meaningful relationships when your responsibilities are always others and elsewhere.”
Cumberbatch adds, “Stephen Strange suffers so much during the film, not just physically but psychologically. You can put yourself in his place. And that’s the key to being able to empathize with the character. But ultimately his realization that he has a mission beyond his own self is the true turning point for people to lean in and sympathize with him and to understand that this moment, and what becomes of it, is what he’s journeyed through all that suffering for. What’s bold about his origin story is that you get someone built up from ground zero, and this is truly who he was before and after.”
Equally smart and insightful comments from executive producer Stephen Broussard and director Derrickson also provide some quality viewpoints of the tao and zen of “Doctor Strange:”
Executive producer Stephen Broussard adds, “A line in ‘Thor’ goes like, ‘Where you come from, you call it science. We call it magic.’ They’re one and the same. If we applied that sort of approach to the magic in ‘Strange’ you would lose the mystery. You would lose the wonder of it. So it was a tough trick finding the right line to let the audience understand what they need to know yet leave a gap of understanding when it comes to the mystery of how it all works because magic by its very nature is mysterious and unknowable. In a lot of ways the journey of Stephen Strange in this movie was the journey of our own discovery of defining magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
That dichotomy between science and magic that Dr. Stephen Strange must come to grips with makes him an interesting character to the director, who informs, “Stephen Strange, being a skeptic and a materialist and somebody who is very resistant to magic and mysticism, is forced to open up his mind to the possibility that maybe there is more to the world than what he thought. I admire character journeys where a person’s view of the world is expanded. I admire that in the real world when I see people having the courage to expand their minds and see that maybe the world is more than they thought it was—and that’s the journey of Stephen Strange.”
And Derrickson and his cast crew have wonderfully succeeded in “Doctor Strange” to opening up their minds and filmgoers’ minds to greater possibilities, to expanding views of this world and other worlds, and to exploring the possibilities that perhaps there is indeed more to this world than people think there is. That is the journey of Stephen Strange, the character; that is the journey of the film “Doctor Strange;” and that is the journey filmgoers will find themselves traveling on during this entertaining film. “Doctor Strange” is indeed a journey worth taking.