Film review: Doctor Strange

Tolerate the dull writing, stay for the eye-popping visuals


Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from ‘Doctor Strange’
Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from ‘Doctor Strange’

Remember the sequence in Inception in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page cause Paris to fold over on itself? Imagine a film with set-piece upon set-piece like this, but with precious little to bind them together, and you get Doctor Strange, adapted from a lesser-known Marvel series dating back to 1963 and featuring a group of supremely talented actors saying incredibly silly things.

Even as the faithful waited for the mid-credits sequence and the post-credits sequence, I left the hall with the worrying realisation that I’d just sat through a movie that I couldn’t, for the life of me, explain in any detail. If anyone asked, I’d be able to tell them that Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a gifted, self-centred surgeon, suffers severe damage to his hands after a car accident, travels to Kathmandu to seek out a shadowy mystic known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and gets involved in an intergalactic (or is it inter-dimensional?) war with her former student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). But what Kaecilius’ game-plan in (something to do with eternal life), why characters keep saying “dark dimension” and “astral plane” like the words actually mean something, what the deal with the stained-glass monster at the end is, I have no clue.

Doctor Strange is Batman Begins with magic brass knuckles and mysticism: an origin story about a rich, arrogant man who learns the ancient arts from a shamanistic figure and finds a suitable cape. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo is initially undercut by Strange, who just wants to get his hands fixed and leave. This, of course, is undone by a clunky but necessary bit of exposition (”The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.”).

The film has beautifully inventive set-pieces: the sequences in which cityscapes rapidly sway, spin, fold and rearrange themselves are true feats of visual imagination. Yet, very little of anything anyone says in the film makes any sense, and I found myself waiting impatiently for the room to become an Escher drawing or Strange to freeze time with a wave of his hand. An accomplished cast— Swinton, Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor (trying out a vaguely Asian accent)—barely registers. Cumberbatch plays yet another sardonic man of science and gives no indication of tiring of the type.

Doctor Strange releases in theatres on Friday.

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