Guest review by Alberto Achar
Whenever I watch a highly anticipated superhero film, I always leave room for skepticism for two main reasons: One is that I do not have a proclivity for superhero films, and the second is that those big budget films tend to disappoint, given that most of them rely solely on visual spectacle and lack an innovative storyline.
Director and writer Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange” however, combats all of the above criticisms and suffocated whatever skepticism I had. “Doctor Strange” is not only a visual journey that will bedazzle with some of the most impressive visual effects I have ever seen, but also is a groundbreaking science fiction-fantasy hybrid with metaphysical and philosophical overtones. The film reminds me of greats like director, producer and writer Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix.”
Dr. Stephen Strange (played by the perfectly-cast Benedict Cumberbatch) is a gifted but arrogant neurosurgeon who is so stuck-up that he took his love interest (Rachel McAdams) to his own lecture as a date. However, after a nearly fatal car accident, Strange loses the stability of his hand and therefore loses his ability to perform surgery.
In an attempt to exhaust every possible chance he has to save his hand, Strange ends up in Nepal, where he is introduced to the Kamar-Taj, a group of sorcerers under the command of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The moment in the film when she introduces Strange to this world of alternate realities is one of the best, most visually astounding sequences in the film. You will find yourself in a trippy, kaleidoscopic maze that creatively explores the possibilities of an unknown world. The visual effects and creative input poured into this sequence are nothing short of extraordinary.
Naturally, Strange will have to not only put his own ego to the test, but also learn how to suspend his disbelief of a uniform reality or a universe (the sorcerers call it a multiverse). Strange’s personality touches on a variety of philosophical traditions like monism and materialism. Being a physician, Strange believes that there is no distinction between the body and the mind and that nothing exists that cannot be explained by science. The Kamar-Taj is not just based on magic, but also on parallel and astral universes, which only makes Strange’s character feel more nuanced because he is amid an environment in which he actually has to challenge his beliefs to the core.
Apart from all of the above, the film has a strong message about the human fear of death and our fixation on immortality. But what fuels this fear? It is our ignorance and misunderstanding of how time works; time is the ultimate destroyer. The film has a recurrent time motif, which provides nuances to the characters. There is a reason why the film’s villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is afraid of what time can do to him and the human race. The fear of vanishing from the world and being subject to time governs Kaecilius’ actions, which makes him a perplexing character.
Apart from immortality, this film has the most intricate meaning I have seen in a superhero film of what it means to be a hero. Of course, most superhero movies get into this topic, but I have never witnessed such depth in terms of exploring selflessness and actually sacrificing what makes our individual selves happy for the greater good. Strange faces a choice between quenching his individual desire of getting back the control of his hands and being part of something bigger than himself.
Apart from the above-mentioned, the film is quite funny, thanks to perfectly placed punchlines and the talent of a stellar cast. Other than Cumberbatch, Swinton, McAdams and Mikkelsen, the film also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, the hilarious Benedict Wong and the unmistakable comical talents of a red cape (a character of the film in itself). The score by Michael Giacchino is in synch with how epic this film is. It is different and beyond anything I would have expected from a film of this sort.
The world that has been built for “Doctor Strange” is one of a kind, which brings me to my only concern. This film is still a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I am scared that its inclusion in the gargantuan franchise will ruin how unique the film and its world are. The film stands by itself so blatantly to the extent that you forget it’s a Marvel film for the entirety of the movie.
Nevertheless, “Doctor Strange” is mind-blowing, deep and so uniquely different that it makes it one of Marvel’s best installments to date. Seriously though, a science fiction and fantasy hybrid superhero film with philosophical subtext does not come very often.