Friday, 18 November 2016

Doctor Strange | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Top-notch acting meets special effects in world-hopping tale of narcissist’s downfall and rebirth.

Full disclosure: I am not a comic book nerd, and I knew nothing about Doctor Strange before seeing the latest Marvel blockbuster that bears his name. I am, however, quite familiar with the acting talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. So it was with great enthusiasm that I anticipated this superhero origin film. The wait paid off.

Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, takes to the next level the twisted cityscapes of Inception (2010) while detailing the collapse and reinvention of a gifted a-hole who loses sight of his own capacity for error. As the protagonist undertakes a journey both physical and spiritual, the themes that emerge include Western versus Eastern values and black-and-white thinking versus contextualism.

He Had It Coming
Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a god of Western medicine, a highly demanded neurosurgeon with smooth hands and a photographic memory. He is precise, calm, brilliant, and in control. However, Strange is also a cold-hearted narcissist. He puts down those who question him and turns down patients if helping them won’t bring him recognition. He treats
on-again, off-again love interest and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) like a pair of latex gloves. He’s also a slave to time because he wants to solidify his name in the annals of medical history.

Then Strange gets in a horrible car accident that ruins his steady hands. On the advice of a fellow who miraculously recovered from a spinal injury, Strange heads to Katmandu, Nepal. He wants to get his hands fixed and get back into the brain game ASAP. He ends up in Kamar-Taj, where Mordor (Ejiofor) introduces him to The Ancient One (Swinton) and her followers, a secretive philosophical warrior group that uses “the mystic arts” to protect the world.

Strange gets sucked into the group’s effort to stop The Ancient One’s wayward protégé Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) from destroying the Earth. Kaecilius has formed an alliance with Dark Dimension ruler Dormammu, who sees the Earth as a trophy in his quest to take over the multiverse. In exchange for eternal life, Kaecilius helps Dormammu.

True to Marvel form, there’s some comic relief. For instance, Strange repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempts to get super-serious librarian Wong to laugh. “Wong?” he asks. “Just Wong? Like Adele?” Then there’s the temperamental Cloak of Levitation that Strange encounters. It tugs Strange around like a child and flaps and twists as it cartoonishly dispatches an enemy.

She’s Complicated
Surely the most enigmatic character in this film is The Ancient One. When Stephen “I do not believe in fairy tales” Strange first encounters her, he’s skeptical of her Eastern approach. He’s seen her spiritual body charts in “gift shops”.

The Ancient One, slow to anger, finds his insults amusing and quickly shows him her capabilities. What makes The Ancient One so captivating is her contextual approach to problems. She’s prone to ask herself what
makes the most sense in a given situation to best serve the greater good. Thus, The Ancient One bends entire cities, but she also bends the rules. Strange eventually sums her up well: “She’s complicated.” Her way of thinking will play a key role in this story and in Strange’s transformation.

In a brilliant reversal, the filmmakers give a nod to The Ancient One’s philosophy by casting a female in a role traditionally depicted by a male.

Change Is Good
During a physical therapy session, Strange contemptuously refers to his therapist as “Bachelor’s Degree”. This is the kind of guy we want to watch! We can’t necessarily relate to a neurosurgeon, but we can relate to selfish behaviour.

Doctor Strange is, at its core, a study in overcoming closedmindedness. “You cannot beat a river into submission,” says The Ancient One. “You have to surrender to its current and use its power as your own.”

Strange’s fall is a big one, and Cumberbatch effectively welcomes the viewer to the protagonist’s journey. The character’s shaking hands and his unyielding determination help achieve viewer empathy; it’s a pleasure to go on this journey with him. You want him to grow, and you want to grow with him. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

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