IT’S A WINNING combination: tremendous acting, a very witty script, marvellous special effects and a director’s touch that manages to take the silly story seriously enough so as not to patronize viewers.
Marvel’s new superhero is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, a brilliant, insufferably arrogant surgeon. After a dreadful, finger-mangling, career-ending car crash, he journeys to Nepal in search of the miracle cure he learns of from a tip-off. There he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and their team of spell-meisters. They all form a sort of weird mirror image to the Avengers. As he’s told, if the Avengers defend the world from physical dangers, they safeguard it against “more mystical threats”: in this case, in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and the threatening Darkness.
Strange, with his photographic memory and prodigious intelligence, is a quick learner: Once he has learned how to put aside his ego (along with “all that he knows”) he soon masters the secrets of controlling time, conjuring weapons of laser light, diving through portals that link worlds and – natch – leaping across the surfaces of shape-shifting cities made to twist and turn by the forces of evil. Greenwich Village never looked better.
It’s Inception meets The Matrix meets Harry Potter.. on acid. Mesmerising.
But it’s not just the meticulously well-executed special effects that mesmerise, it’s the sheer magnetism of the three leads…it’s worth the price of admission simply to spend some time with this very classy bunch. Cumberbatch’s rich-voiced charisma (he has one of the best voices in cinema) is a compelling guide to this parallel world. He effortlessly seduces us away from his hissingly nasty overbearing surgeon persona, so that we come to eagerly root for his transformed self – a swaggering cape swirling, martial arts, high kicking sorcerer. His teachers are a Shakespearean sounding Chiwetel, who looks and sounds as though he’s a time traveling Othello, strutting upon the multiverse version of a Stratford stage. And the androgynous, bald Swinton, weird at the best of times, as The Ancient One. She has a look, a sternness of visage that I’m convinced could do as much damage as her spinning fans of light. These characterizations are so strong that the usually compelling Mads Mikkelsen, as the baddie (as usual), seems just OK.
As you’d expect, there’s a battle royale when the bad guys meet the good. But what lifts this movie away from the usual, and increasingly tiresome summer super-hero blockbusters, is the freshness of imagination that director Scott Erickson (“Sinister”) and Marvel regulars, production designer – Charles Wood (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy”etc) – and cinematographer Ben Davis, have dreamed up. It’s an ‘origin’ story (and these have often been the best the franchises can offer) – that’s as interestingly inventive as the first Christopher Nolan, Batman (Batman Begins) .
And this inventiveness resides not just in the big show-stopping set pieces (cities that collapse in on themselves as if sucked together by massive gravitational forces, or journeys to the outer reaches of the parallel universe) but in the smaller, often whimsically funny touches, like Strange’s weaponized coat (in this universe, you don’t choose your weapon, it chooses you) whose collar insists on tickling his cheeks.
Some of the dialog – written by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and C. Robert Carghill (Sinister) is also equally funny, mixing stentorian mumbo jumbo about evil sorcery with the unexpectedly banal (When Dr. Strange informs Kaecilius that his name is “Strange”, Kaecilius’ response is “Maybe. Who am I to judge?”)
As the nights more quickly leach into the days and the cold snaps of winter warn of snows to come, this is a fitting Indian summer blockbuster; the final comfort food movie before the nourishment of the Oscar season begins
DOCTOR STRANGE. Dir: Scott Derrickson. With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams. Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, from the comic by Steve Dikko (“Spiderman”). Cinematographer: Ben Davis (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”)