Wednesday 2 November 2016

Doctor Strange: The Rough and The Smooth

Doctor Strange
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Running time: 115mins

Could it be magic? Um, no, not quite...

This review contains spoilers

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rich, successful, brilliant and arrogant New York neurosurgeon whose career is destroyed when a car accident leaves his hands shattered. Desperate to get his old life back but beyond the help of regular surgery, Strange spends his last dollar on a quest to Kathmandu, in hopes of discovering a miracle cure. There he encounters a powerful being called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who inducts him into a head-spinning world of magic and alternative dimensions.

Under her tutelage - and with the companionship of The Ancient One's assistants Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) - Strange soon starts to master the mystical arts. Instead of using his newly-acquired skills to heal his broken body and resume his medical career, however, he finds himself pressed into action against the forces of darkness. And that's just as well because Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) - a former student of The Ancient One's - has turned bad and plans to conquer the planet in the name of his master, Dormammu, an immensely powerful creature from the Dark Dimension.

The Rough
1. Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams (who plays Strange's love interest) aren't given nearly enough to do. The former is a typical Marvel movie bad guy, full of expository dialogue and zero personality, whose really only there to guide our protagonist to the movie's 'boss level'. It's a criminal waste of a terrific actor. The latter does little apart from simper after Strange, despite being a capable doctor in her own right. 
2. Unusually for a Marvel film, the humour feels a bit laboured. Cumberbatch isn't a natural when it comes to reeling off the supposedly snappy banter, and some of the jokes - including one about Beyoncé - are just plain clunky and unfunny.
3. The movie struggles to find its own identity and often comes across as little more than a hot-potch of influences. Batman Begins, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Inception, Harry Potter, and even a certain scene in the first Christopher Reeve Superman film are all visible in its DNA. Consequently, there's a 'seen it all before' vibe to parts of the movie.
4. The film's biggest problem is its use of the tired old 'light side versus dark side' trope that was fine 40 years ago in Star Wars but is looking decidedly threadbare these days. The script - an exposition-heavy cornucopia of nerd gobbledegook about alternate dimensions, mystical talismans and spells - doesn't help a whole lot.
5. Doctor Strange does not run anywhere - ever. He's the master of the mystic arts, not Usain bleedin' Bolt.
6. At no point does Strange use any of his comic-book catchphrases. There's no 'Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth' nor 'Crimson Bands of Cyttorak'. This really will not do.

Spellbound: Doctor Strange boasts eye-popping effects

The Smooth
1. Not all of them are given much to do (see #1, above) but Doctor Strange boasts perhaps the most impressive cast of any superhero film to date. Just check out this lot: Oscar winner Swinton, Oscar nominee Cumberbatch, Oscar nominee McAdams, Oscar nominee Ejiofor, Cannes Best Actor winner Mikkelsen, and Primetime Emmy nominee Benjamin Bratt (okay, I may be reaching a bit with the last one). That's the kind of heavyweight acting talent Christopher Nolan or Alejandro G. Iñárritu would sacrifice a puppy for. Doctor Strange helmer Scott Derrickson (Sinister) must have thought all his Christmases had come at once.
2. The special effects are just that - special. Yes, some of the reality-folding stuff you'll recognise from the trailer owes a bit too much to Inception (not to mention MC Escher), but there's a scene just after Strange meets The Ancient One for the first time that is both spectacular and psychedelic. The good doctor's final confrontation with Dormammu is a treat, too, as is a punch-up his 'astral form' has with one of Kaecilius's goons. For once, I wish I'd forked out the extra to see it all in 3D.
3. I almost cheered when Dormammu turned up in the film's final act - finally, a proper old-school Marvel villain, even if he wasn't around nearly long enough and Strange's means of defeating him was straight out of a Stephen Moffat-scripted episode of Doctor Who
4. Despite the understandable controversy created by Swinton's involvement (The Ancient One is an elderly Asian man in the comics), the cast is impressively diverse, with big roles for Ejiofor (comic-book Mordo is white) and Wong, whose namesake character is given a lot more to do here than he was ever granted in the comics as Strange's valet. 
5. I'm a sucker for a story of redemption and Doctor Strange delivers a pretty good one as our protagonist goes from selfish arsehole to selfless hero. I also liked the fact Strange isn't some special 'Chosen One foretold in the book of blah blah' and actually has to master magic the hard way - blood, sweat and a ton of practise.
6. Stan Lee's cameo is mercifully brief and, for once, actually amusing (he's reading Aldous Huxley's mescaline-fuelled The Doors Of Perception).
7. I really hate post-credits scenes and resent having to wait all the way to the bitter, bloody end of a movie. BUT the mid-credits and post-credits sequences here do set things up very nicely for Thor: Ragnarok and, presumably, Doctor Strange 2

Result: Rough 6 Smooth 7 - Doctor Strange nicks a narrow victory. It isn't a patch on Marvel's best movies (Iron Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy), but some eye-popping special effects and a cast to die for just about paper over a weak script and hackneyed storyline.

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