I love weird movies. Anything that takes me drastically out of my element. Throw in some bizarro mystical stuff and make it psychedelic and I’m doubly there. I’m not religious or likely to join a cult anytime soon, so it’s all fantasy to me.
So, Doctor Strange. Been waiting on this for a while. I’ve been following the comic relaunch since its first issue and I’m vaguely familiar with the mythology created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the mid-60’s. I was excited for the movie for the same reason I read the comics: I wanted to see some, ahem, strange things.
I don’t normally write about first-run stuff, preferring to see movies from my big puffy chair and take notes where I have light enough to see my writing. But another reason I don’t review these things is that, well, everyone else is. Who needs another asshole’s opinion? As of this writing, there’s three hundred critic’s reviews linked on IMDB. And I’ve read...well, a handful of them. Some of them, but certainly not all, have complained about the admittedly thin story but made the mistake of saying that there’s too much “style” and not enough “substance.” I saw this argument made recently in a review of another movie when I was reading a horror magazine that I subscribe to. The reviewer was comparing a new horror release to a giallo, the Italian pulp film genre that flourished in the 70’s. The reviewer used the exact expression “style over substance” and I almost threw the magazine against the wall. In giallo, just like Doctor Strange, style is substance. Story is a point of departure, not the point itself. This harkens back to the earliest days of film. A complex story was likely to bog down a silent movie. You watched for the photography, the acting, the emotional content.
So let’s talk first about the primary reason for seeing this movie, the marvelous visuals. I wouldn’t recommend watching Doctor Strange in 3D if you’re over 30. You will start bleeding from the eyes. Probably. It’s all just too intense. I don’t even watch regular superhero movies in 3D. This trippy shit would have been a bit too much. I saw the movie twice in two days in regular 2D, like we used to in the old days, and it impressed the hell out of me.
So the movie starts right off with a battle in the mirror universe, a realm that looks like our own except that objects can be manipulated with ease. Yes, the flattened, upside-down buildings will remind you of Inception and the action will remind you of The Matrix, but there’s definitely more to it than that. The filmmakers aren’t just ripping the whole Inception schtick off. The cracking of reality like glass, the buildings turning into clock gears, remind us always of the flick’s big theme: time.
The first half of the movie is darker in tone and in colors. Director Scott Derrickson came from horror, starting out with flicks like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, so I imagine he was most comfortable in this space. The darkness places a stark emphasis on Strange’s dark soul. He’s a great doctor who has helped a number of people, but he also chooses his cases based on the potential glory. He’s a very cruel man, though he doesn’t really mean to be. He’s full of humor, but there’s a bleakness about him. We can feel the cold underneath his warm smile. Overall, the colors seemed a bit darker than what I’m used to from Marvel movies, which I thought was nice.
At one point in the story, Doctor Strange’s guru, the Ancient One, played by the wonderful Tilda Swinton, says to him, “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole.” Yes, and indeed, this is the very definition of a person before their first psychedelic experience. Afterward, well, with the touch of her hand, the Ancient One sends Strange travelling through the multiverse and we’re treated to one of two can’t miss sequences of the movie. Okay, so I’ve never had a psychedelic experience this intense, no matter what I took to assist me. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d handle it if I did. But the sequence is just wonderful. A YouTube reviewer complained that it went on forever, but, honestly, I wouldn’t mind if most of the movie consisted only of this psychedelic journey. Strange in the vacuum of space, where he encounters a butterfly. A tiny Dr. Strange being pushed through his own eye. The Dali-esque madness of each of his fingers forming hands that form their own hands that...well...it’’s really a joy to watch and I couldn’t help but sit in awe and really appreciate how far FX work has come. There wasn’t much disbelief to suspend. I really felt like I was in this weird realm with the good doctor.
While the first trip to the astral plane isn’t exactly a heartwarming experience, the dark realm inhabited by Dormammu, the evil consumer of universes, is almost terrifying. Marvel has to keep things family friendly enough that it doesn’t tip all the way over into horror, but the hellscape that Strange is forced into borders on horror movie territory. It’s a bad dream, at least.
So now the Marvel movies have a multiverse. Good on them. We’ve had other realms before, but they were all within the same universe. Now things are literally limitless. Marvel has to be careful here, now that there are literally no boundaries. And it begs a question: once you’ve introduced literally limitless universes, where do you go next? The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been all about careful expansion, starting with relatively earth-bound stories like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk and then moving onto Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy. Where to next? Where to, indeed.
The acting was fine. Exceptional in a few cases. Though he doesn’t quite nail the American accent (weird, too, because I seem to remember him being fine in Black Mass), Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely embodies Doctor Strange to the point where you simply couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. I think this, not Sherlock Holmes, will be his most iconic role. As for the supporting players, Rachel McAdams doesn’t have a lot to do as Christine, Strange’s sort of romantic interest, but she’s quite charming nonetheless. Tilda Swinton does a great job with the sexually neutral and androgynous Ancient One. Mads Mikkelsen is a wonderful villain, and I suspect he always will be. Like McAdams, he doesn’t have a lot to do, but his darkly musical Danish accent can’t help but be enthralling. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a bit more than passable as Strange’s sort of sidekick whose major flaw is an unbending adherence to rules, to the detriment of the planet’s survival. He did seem to be channeling Morpheus from The Matrix a bit too much, though.
So yes, go see this movie. Go see it in the theaters. You know, a lot of people are lamenting that theaters almost exclusively play these very mainstream action and 3D-driven movies, but I think that’s okay. So the movie theater is going to be a place of spectacle now. No big deal. Home theaters are getting better and TV screens are as big as you like. No need to get off of your couch to see a cheaper genre movie or an arthouse flick. But, I don’t know, I’m from the home video generation anyway, and my family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so we mostly only saw movies in the theaters on special occasions like birthdays. And they were always giant spectacles. In 1987, for my seventh birthday, I saw Masters of the Universe. Two years later, I saw Batman. I have no idea what I saw in 1988, but I’m sure it was some sort of giant action spectacle. Or maybe we went to Chuck E. Cheese. Either way, I’m sure I had a lot of fun.