If I were to pose a universal question to you – namely, What is that one entity who, all human beings, regardless of race, religion, or economic status, take for granted? – what would your answer be? No, it’s not that aunt who knits away sweaters for ungrateful nieces and nephews; nor is it that neighbor who bakes cookies and delivers them to you, when you’d much rather be eating salads to de-paunch yourself. Our planet is at the receiving end of our selfish, contemptuous behavior, even as we, foolish in the assumption of having conquered all, assume that we’re in control. Suspend, if you will, your textbook-begotten knowledge – and wonder what keeps our planet safe from other life in the universe? What prevents a more-advanced life-form from taking over our teeny-weeny abode, and allows us to continue to plunder and rampage Earth’s bounties at will?
Keep that quickly advancing smirk in check and hail director Scott Derrickson’s entry into the Marvel world with Dr. Strange. Derrickson has helmed quite a few movies, but the stand out to me was the chillingly marvellous The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Based on the book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange is a startlingly welcome addition to the Marvel universe and to the cinema of superheroes in general. The director opens the movie with a brilliantly executed action sequence between Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his band of breakaway sorcerers, and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and their team. Don’t think, just gape in wonder at this sequence, that segues into the relatively placid world of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) – a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon – his ex-flame, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who still holds a love lamp of friendship for him, if not hopes of being together again; and Strange’s rival surgeon, Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Strange’s pompous world is turned upside down in a horrifyingly captured car crash that smashes right into your senses with the 3-D experience. With no hopes of recovering his steady hold in the caring hands of Dr. Palmer, Strange discovers a long shot at recovery that leads him to Kathmandu. It is here, and in Kamar-Taj, to be precise, that Strange meets the Ancient One, Mordo, and Wong (Benedict Wong) and is drawn into their world – for him, the sole purpose being full recovery to be able to return to his world of nerves and neurons. But, as he discovers – in another sequence that’s as mind-bogglingly stunning visually, as much as it is filled with truisms about the behaviour of the human race, and disconcerting a mirror to Strange’s attitude and ours – with the Ancient One’s help, just how precarious life on the planet is, under constant threat from other dimensions. And that, their job is to protect the three buildings or sanctums (in Hong Kong, London, and New York), that in turn protect Earth from the Dark Dimension (headlined by Dormammu, who, if you’re interested, is enacted and voiced by Cumberbatch himself). Obviously, Kaecilius is up to no good, and as Strange discovers soon enough, with great magic comes great responsibility and greater danger.
Director Scott Derrickson spins what is one of the best superhero movies ever, and arguably one of the finest in the Marvel universe. Dr. Strange is a visually and cinematically phantasmagoria of a beauty, and co-writing with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, the director laces fantasy in a sharply edged question of the very existence of mankind. With cinematography by Ben Davis and a galaxy of technicians (including from Industrial Light & Magic and RISE Visual Effects Studios) compositing and creating the special effects, the movie is filled with breath-taking visuals that are part-LSD soaked, part a doffing to Christopher Nolan-architected mind-bending effects (that he introduced to the world in Inception).
The action sets are outstanding, the edifices and buildings beating your sense of the G-force, as time and space fold up, twist and turn, causing you to breathe sharply, making you hold your armchair in the cinema hall in quiet terror, even as you feel a rush of dizziness and dis-orientation that’s chillingly real. The sequence where Strange uses the Eye to turn back time is a masterpiece in cinematic effects, truly never seen or done before, as you gape through a cinematic wormhole – the fight between Strange and Kaecilius going forward in regular time, while the rest of the destroyed Hong Kong begins to rebuild in reverse time. Simply, simply spectacular.
The music score by Michael Giacchino complements and supplements the very premise of the movie structure – magical and mysterious. Note how he uses tinny piano pieces in the first fight between Strange and Kaecilius, then some pause-fuelled tablas. Or the superb end-credits theme, that employs delayed drum beats, psychedelic keyboards, and haunting progression – very Pink Floydish. Giacchino also employs, quite smartly, Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive to amp up the car crash scene.
Of the cast, Tilda Swinton has a limited, though very effective presence. Mads Mikkelsen as the primary (and primed) villain is very good, lending an air of believability and truth to his arguments, that might just sway you as well. Rachel McAdams is superb, her act swinging between bewilderment (that brought out some well-intentioned chuckles in the cinema hall) to a tender yearning. The scene between McAdams and Cumberbatch outside the operation theatre, where both are washing up, is very beautifully done and acted. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong lend strong and dependable heft to the story, and there’s promise of more to come from them in an inescapable sequel (hint: wait for the end credits to complete their roll) – and this is the gnawing question – will it measure up to the absolutely high, seemingly unattainable bar set by this project, or end up in the black hole of sequel contretemps?
In the eponymous role, Benedict Cumberbatch approaches his craft with a precision that reminded me of Alan Rickman. He chews at the persona of Strange, discovering the flavour of the character and relishing it, taking his time to acquire a taste of the new characteral cuisine; he’s part smart-mouthed, arrogant Sherlock, part-fumbling sorcerer, melding both personas with the charm of a fragrant acting adhesive.
Beyond all the fantasia and psychedelia – and in what, after The Jungle Book, is by far the best cinematic 3-D experience – is a troubling posit that Dr. Strange poses – what is our role in the endless creation that is the universe? What’s protecting our planet from things that surely exist way beyond our imagination or technologies? A shell of protection or some strange, serendipitous luck? Whatever the answer, this is one heck of a universe to marvel at – and the sooner we realize this, the longer we’ll survive as an ignoramus species. Don’t believe me? Ask Dr. Strange – he’s learning it the hard way.
Director Scott Derrickson Running Time 1h 55 min
Writers Stan Lee (based on the comic book by), Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Genres Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Watch the trailer of Dr. Strange here: