Sunday, 20 November 2016

I Came for LSD, But Only Got Sugar: A Review of 'Dr Strange' (2016 film)

Dr Strange was never going to be ground-breaking film. Guardians of the Galaxy proved B-list characters could sell, and Inception pre-empted many of Dr Strange’s trippier elements. While not excellent, Dr Strange is decent, with a tad more visual flourish than other MCU movies.  

Self-centred and brilliant Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a neurosurgeon driven more by prestige than altruism. When a car crash cripples his hands, his career ends. After Western medicine fails to save him, he treks to Kathmandu, to Kamar-Taj, an order headed by the mystical Ancient One, said to cure any ailment. While he does not heal, he learns their sorcery. All is not well, though. A renegade pupil, Kaecilius, summons threats from the edge of reality. Dr Strange holds the fate of the world in his hands.

Dr Strange recites the selfish-arsehole-becomes-selfless-hero narrative arc. While never ground-breaking, it can be done well. And, indeed, you feel Strange’s catastrophe, the moment he loses those qualities that somehat excuse selfishness. When Strange realises his hands are beyond healing, you genuinely sympathise with him. You feel the shock of a man who can no longer live life as he has, and will grasp at any hope of returning to glory. As tends to happen in these kinds of stories, his desperation to save himself results in him sacrificing himself to save others. Unfortunately, the audience does not see Strange metamorphose from selfish to altruistic. He becomes more moral because that’s what happens in these kinds of stories; he becomes selfless because he is the hero. Yes, there is an moment late in the film where he understands he must prioritise others, but this scene is played as the capstone to previous growth, growth the audience has not seen.

Given Strange is a sorcerer in training, you’d think he’d have a tougher time mastering magic. Yes, in these stories the novice always masters the art with absurd proficiency, but Strange’s immediate competence is parodic. He may struggle with the basics, but no sooner does he learn them than he masters the whole art. Apart from straining the willing suspension of disbelief, Derrickson, the director, ignored some dramatic potential. He might have had Strange confronting rivals greatly exceeding his skill. I would forgive the ease of his training, if the sequence where he overcomes his initial struggles had more weight. The Ancient One throws him into a sink-or-swim scenario; he shall either create a portal, or die for lack of one. Now there is suspense in that conceit, suspense never realised. The scene elapses too quickly, and the audience never feels Strange’s peril. Rather than focus on Strange struggle for his life, the camera stays mainly on the Ancient One, as she awaits his success. Maybe Derrickson intended a comedic rather than tense scene, but given how half-baked the rest of Strange’s training is, the director should have chosen suspense here, if nowhere else.

If the protagonist is serviceable, the villain is transparent. A former pupil of the Ancient One gone rogue, Kaecilius has a more interesting motivation than many MCU villains, but is little more than that motivation. His motivation does not arise from his character. It could not arise from his character, for he lacks one. The audience learns little of his past, and nothing of his psychology beyond his zealotry.

Dr Strange is the ‘trippy’ marvel movie, not in terms of narrative, but visuals. Lower your expectations. Derrickson evokes neither LSD, nor even a vivid dream. The main expression of trippiness is moving architecture around, a flourish Inception did earlier and better. The movie touches its potential, at times. A traffic intersection becomes an Escher-esque optical illusion, and characters fight as the world rewinds behind them. Pity these examples were not the base line; they are shallow ceilings. As sequels tend to double down on scale, here’s hoping Dr Strange 2 does take MC Escher as the start line, and gets weirder from there.

The film only aims to be fun. Beyond some bargain-bin new-ageism, which not even the characters take seriously, the film never tries to say anything. Unlike the last two Captain America movies, where the villains were government surveillance and international bureaucracy respectively, the villain in Dr Strange is a demon from outside time. Which is fine. The film aims at nothing more than popcorn fun. At times, however, its fun tone thwarts its grander moments. Moments which should have emotional weight, or at least sombre silence, are broken by gags. Strange will quip, or a magical instrument will perform slapstick. While I’m not asking for a po-faced film, Derrickson didn’t have to cap every scene with a joke.
Despite limiting itself to a rote, unsatisfying narrative, and never achieving its visual potential, Dr Strange entertains. You won’t open the doors of perception, nor will you find an excellent action-adventure movie. What you will get is a decent Marvel movie that flirts with visual experimentation.  

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