Two things you need to know right off the bat about Marvel and Disney’s PG-13 rated Doctor Strange. One, it’s not necessary to know anything about the character prior to watching the film. And two, the crazy, tilted world glimpsed in the trailers is one of the most fascinating and immersive comic book-inspired film environments ever created in a live-action movie. The effects in Doctor Strange are spectacular, and paying the higher ticket price for the 3D format is worthwhile for this gravity-twisting sci-fi production.
As impressive as the visual effects are, Doctor Strange doesn’t allow the effects to overwhelm or take the place of a compelling story. Director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and his co-writers provide all the details necessary to understand and ultimately root for Dr. Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch is always charming, even when he’s playing an egotistical narcissist, and he slips into this character so smoothly it’s impossible to picture anyone else tackling the role of the doctor whose loss of control over his hands leads him on a spiritual journey unlike anything he’d ever imagined.
The film tracks the brilliant doctor’s journey from arrogant neurosurgeon to believer in mystical forces that can manipulate space and time. Following an accident he brought on by talking on his cell phone while driving, Dr. Strange’s body is broken and his hands – the second most precious part of his body – are shattered beyond repair. After months of rehab and experimental treatments, he’s able to use them only for the simplest of tasks. Returning to the operating room is out of the question.
With nowhere else to turn and no remaining treatment options, a man who suffered an equally disabling injury suggests Strange visit a healer in Nepal. The healer turns out to be a woman known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who, along with her first in command, Mordor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), teaches Strange there are, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. Initially skeptical, Strange not only winds up embracing the teachings but becomes a voracious researcher, learning everything there is to know about this hidden world few are privy to.
Dr. Strange’s lessons lead him to a confrontation with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rebel who used to follow the Ancient One but now wishes to bring down the secret society she oversees and protects. It’s up to Dr. Strange, Mordor, and a librarian named Wong (Benedict Wong) to protect the three sanctums in Hong Kong, London, and New York, and keep humanity from being wiped out.
All the sets and effects are mind-blowing, and the special effects artists who created Doctor Strange’s world have given the audience a truly unique visual experience that’s likely to earn multiple awards or at the very least, nominations. Buildings and streets dissolve and fold in on themselves, with their sections fitting together in a surreal Rubik’s Cube manner that’s impossible to adequately describe. It may take multiple viewings to fully grasp how all the moving parts in certain set pieces – the New York and Hong Kong street scenes, in particular – were intricately visualized in such a way that buildings look and behave like living creatures while still retaining the outlines of their original forms.
Director Derrickson assembled a talented cast, including Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg in supporting roles, and each deliver outstanding performances. But, of course, this is really Benedict Cumberbatch’s film and he nails it as the lead in this comic book-inspired movie. Cumberbatch has such a natural, easy way about him that makes him believable even in a sci-fi fantasy adventure in which he wears a magical cloak and creates portals to other worlds just by waving his hands. Dr. Strange is arrogant, privileged, and rude, and while Cumberbatch handles those less attractive aspects of the character well, it’s in the lighter moments that he excels.
Doctor Strange fairly flies by, with just a few very short bits of exposition to fill in important backstories. The action kicks in early on and once it does, it takes the audience on a crazy, upside down ride with each subsequent twist upping the visual effects ante. See it in 3D and in IMAX if it’s available in your area, and be prepared to be wowed.
Reminder: This is a Marvel film so stick around for the credits.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Running Time: 115 minutes