Sunday, November 6, 2016

Lost horizon


There is so much in Doctor Strange that's almost great, and you wish it could just drag itself over that line; and, then, in the end, it finally manages to drag itself right onto that line, leaving you slightly confused about exactly how to score it.

Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Scott Derrickson
With Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Benedict Wong (Wong), Rachel McAdams (Dr. Christine Palmer), and Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The best news about Doctor Strange is that it's almost fully enjoyable, even when it's not living up to its potential—and, of course, when that potential was pretty much infinite, not living up to every last bit of it can't really be considered an unpardonable sin.  But then again, by the exact same token, when something like Strange refuses to be its best self, it naturally adds a little extra salt to the sting of its disappointments, however mild they might be.

So let's meet our hero, one Stephen Strange.  He's a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon soon struck down by his own all-consuming hubris when he decides to text and drive at the same time, ruining his perfect hands in the inevitable crash that follows.  Sent into a spiral of dissolution and shame, he answers his despair by seeking out a mysterious hocus-pocus cure in the East.  Yet what he finds there is not the possibility of healing just his hands, but his soul itself—and, without quite realizing it, this is indeed the quest that Stephen takes on, once he falls upon the Himalayan doorstep of the so-called "Ancient One," Earth's most powerful sorcerer, begging her to impart upon him her vast knowledge of the mystic arts.

Thus, alongside the Ancient One's fellow wizards—especially her right-hand man, a paragon of lawful neutrality called Mordo—Stephen learns the secrets of magic and of the multiverse, while (in an even greater miracle) he also learns how to become somewhat less of an imperious shit.  But Stephen makes the grade none too soon, for the renegade Kaecilius has lately stolen key pages from a book of forbidden spells, and used them to make contact with the eater of universes, the master of the Dark Dimension—the dread Dormammu.

Or, the even shorter synopsis: it's Star Wars, only now with a cranky middle-aged man, along with a few even farther-out ideas.

Before going further, a confession: Dr. Strange is a comic book character I have no special fondness for, not because I dislike him or the concepts he plays with—if anything, the brand of Marvel Universe mysticism that Strange represents is part-and-parcel of some of my favorite comics of all time, and the dude has, like, the best costume (not totally done justice here, frankly, if we're talking out of turn).  Instead, it's simply because I've never gotten around to reading too many of the doctor's adventures, especially Jim Steranko's iconic, psychedelic run on the character, back in the 1970s.

Even so, everything Stephen Strange is famous for in the world of comic book nerds is also everything that made me intensely excited for its cinematic adaptation: the brain-curdling vistas of geometric complexity and unimaginable color; the arcane concepts that sounded cool even if they didn't make sense; and, above all, the possibilities inherent to a character who stood apart from (and maybe even a little bit above) the Marvel Universe as we usually understand it.  (I'm sure we don't need to be reminded at all of how Ant-Man was made lesser than it ever needed to be, when its square peg was ultimately forced into the round hole of the wider ongoing story.)  So there was something of the boundless to Strange, in both its visual possibilities, and in its narrative ones.

Well, now I've seen it, and it lives up to those possibilities, sometimes.  Maybe even about half the time.

Happily, we can grant Dr. Strange one thing: of all the fourteen Marvel movies (with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy, and maybe Iron Man, way back when), this has got to be the one that stands most completely on its own two feet.  Outside of a harmlessly, maybe even intriguingly cute mid-credits sequence, Strange almost manages to avoid making the unnecessary references to other movies that tend to bog Marvel products down.  For example, thanks to our magical setting, the inevitable reveal of an Infinity Stone is probably somewhat less obnoxious than it usually is.  Only one moment of interconnectedness sticks badly in the craw.  That's when Strange fecklessly references a certain broken spine from Civil War, and it becomes a lot harder to pretend that the training montage that brings Stephen to the brink of mystical mastery is an amalgamation of "years of study and practice," as opposed to the half-semester spent at Hogwart's that it actually is.

There are other, even more urgent reasons to not let Strange's industrial production entirely off the hook: there was a decision made, in some boardroom years ago, that all of Marvel's movies—irrespective of which character they adapted or which (sub)genre they seized upon—would be cut from much the same cloth, and that their one-tone-fits-all approach was always going to be "lightly wacky, with a side of apocalypse."  Call it the Curse of Robert Downey.

But this material doesn't support it.  Neither do these performances.  Cumberbatch (a casting choice so on-the-nose it almost counts as lazy) remains charismatic, in his way, but he's much more at home when the screenplay lets him slide between vaingloriously cruel and desperately repentant, as opposed to the various other modes it desperately wants to graft onto him—like "playful," or "annoyingly bitchy."  (The script even cops to its own weakness here: Stephen whines to a magical colleague that his old friends thought he was funny, whereupon his new friend asks if his old friends were employees.)  With all this in mind, Strange is at its most effective, as a story, when it doesn't resist being the dour, moody, earnest Marvel movie one easily imagines it began as—whereas it's almost-objectively at its least effective when it makes its clumsy attempts to smuggle some old Iron Man charm back in, by baldly copy-pasting Tony Stark lines into the script and (occasionally) even into Cumberbatch's reads.  Maybe that's why the only reliably-witty performance in the film is Tilda Swinton's, because she's playing the Ancient One as justifiably wiser-than-thou—and is therefore allowed to verbally kick Stephen in the ribs when he's at his most deserving.

Now, Strange is surely not, at bottom, a film about its performances, but it's still worth discussing them briefly, inasmuch as they're shockingly good, considering how little anybody not named "Stephen" actually gets to do.

This would've been less shocking several years ago, before we learned how easily superhero films can waste a talented ensemble cast.  But Strange, lucky for it, gets the benefit of its talented cast, even without putting in that much investment.  So: as undercooked as Rachel McAdams' not-quite-a-love-interest character undeniably is, there are nevertheless some fine, fine things happening on her face during her brief scenes with Cumberbatch.  As Mordo, Chiwetel Ejiofor has the infinitely-thankless job of laying groundwork for a sequel, but does it so well you forget that's all he's doing.  And, while it seems like the script wants to waste Mads Mikkelsen as the treacherous Kaecilius, Mikkelsen hangs on tooth and nail, clearing the rather low bar set by the villains in other Marvel flicks, simply by credibly embodying a villain who doesn't think he's a villain.

Finally, I know I've mentioned Swinton already, but let me applaud her again: there is no reason I ought to be moved by the struggles of the disposable mentor in a superhero movie, but here we are anyway.  This was choice casting, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Altogether, Strange turns out to be a much better origin story than most of them, mostly because it gives its characters permission to actually behave in ways that reflect their own suffering, which is another way of saying it lets them be human.  Strange's director, Scott Derrickson, is not necessarily very good at much—he has a very mixed filmography, and his resume-ready credits amount essentially to just one, namely Sinister—but he is nevertheless pretty good at this.  There's no doubt that Strange would be even better if it were the kind of movie that allowed him to indulge this instinct more.  Of course, it is not.  So, instead, we shall take what human-scale melodrama we can get, which isn't nothing: Stephen's descent into self-loathing; Kaecilius' tear-stained appeal to Stephen's doctor's morality; the Ancient One standing at a window, contemplating reality in the form of a frozen bolt of lightning.  And maybe this explains why the desultory attempts to lighten the mood wind up so bothersome.  It's a movie that badly wants to be reflective, and even somber.

That leaves us with what Strange is really about, though I've buried the lede, and that (of course) is what a couple hundred million dollars of CGI freak-out looks like.  Disney's marketing campaign, for once, ought to be congratulated for leaving the coolest parts to the filmgoing experience itself; and yet if you walked away from the ads and into the theater believing that Strange's go-to trick was to out-Inception Inception, then you wouldn't be far off the mark.  The way Strange turns urban spaces into smashed fractal pieces of optical art is both marvelous and lovely, to be sure.  It would probably be even more marvelous and lovely, if it wasn't required to have any point beyond its suggestion of physics kneeling before a higher plane of reality.  (It might also help, if someone had come up with a way of representing truly impossible geometry in a moving, three-dimensional environment, probably through editing tricks; but alas.)  Anyway, the breakdown of reality mostly gets used as just one more weapon in Stephen's unwanted magical war (and a weapon that doesn't seem to offer a whole lot of traction in any contest between all-powerful wizards, at that).  It sums up much of Strange's magic: weird locales, hosting fistfights.

What the minds behind Strange never quite intuited is that Inception drew its power from conceptual weirdness.  Sure, Strange has verve to spare.  On the level of design, Strange beats Nolan's picture with both its nerve-damaged hands tied behind its back—and when we step beyond the mundane world completely, it looks like a film directed by a Machine Elf, and that is radical.  But then, there is nothing all that weird about shimmery colors, no matter how colorful, and no matter how shimmery: Derrickson's film, for all its pretensions, is a conventional thing in most every other way you could name.  Yes, there is one setpiece, involving time running backwards, that tries to do something novel; but that one comes across as a total mess, so I tend not to count it.  The elegant cross-time cross-cutting that defines Inception, or the editing structures that don't even have names, which the Wachowskis created for their descent into kaleidoscopic insanity, Speed Racer, simply have no real analogue here.

But then, neither does a genuine sensation of transcendence.  Comparisons to, say, 2001, The Tree of Life, or Altered States would be really off-base.  (So did I go in with miscalibrated expectations, or what?)  To some extent, those comparisons would be direly unfair.  I don't imagine that the ineffable was what they were going for in the first place, especially given the pre-visualization designers' surprisingly content-free approach to Strange's mystic vistas—in retort to Stephen's previous scoffing ignorance, the Ancient One asks, "Did you see that in a gift shop?", and, as gnarly as it assuredly is, there's a little angel whispering in your ear, "Yeah, kind of."  (It might be worth noting that the best trippy moment in the whole film is also pretty much the only one that uses a reasonably concrete metaphor—specifically a set of endlessly-replicating hands.)

But then, the more apparent desire with Strange was to make a pop pastiche of the various movies that did go for something ineffable, and maybe that's a shame, in and of itself—superhero comics get ahold of the cosmic all the damned time.  Indeed, maybe the impression I got of it was a mistake—that is, it was an actual unintended effect—considering the film's story, which really is moderately off-center (not to mention covertly, nonspecifically religious).  That story goes to great lengths to emphasize Stephen's essential smallness within the gears of our reality, even while the film's images, rather unfortunately, tend to emphasize his big-wheel importance.  But either way, I think the biggest tell, regarding the studio's intentions toward unthreatening surfaces, rather than a full-on embrace of potentially-alienating substance, can be found in Michael Giacchino's score.

It is the best score a Marvel movie's ever had—and, of course, all that actually means is that the score is "basically good."  Aside from ripping off Giacchino's own back catalog (and how!), it occasionally feints aggressively toward something like honest-to-God prog rock—but only to scamper away immediately, as if it were scared someone might've actually noticed.  It only finally gets to where it's going (and where we would have liked it to be the whole damn time) with its King Crimson-inflected "Master of the Mystic"... which we only get to hear playing itself out, over the last four minutes of the fucking end credits.  It's of a piece, I suppose, with how the script itself rides such a conservative line, surgically removing much of the subjectivity that any great mystical journey depends upon—while also domesticating its magic with far too much exposition for it to stay strange (yet never quite enough to make it make much sense, either).

So, yeah: Strange probably couldn't be much more of a staid, square piece of cinema if it tried, to the extent it can't even be the best possible realization of the gonzo pastiche that I think its makers preferred it to be.  (And that's a disappointment, too—or it is, anyway, if you also happen to be the one person on Earth who holds the opinion that Sinister was the most formally-interesting horror movie in years.)

And yet it's still very good, at the very least.  The beauty it offers, however unchallenging, is nevertheless superior to (perhaps) any superhero movie ever made, especially if you don't count Thor, which for some reason many quite stridently refuse to do.  It even gets to something trippy, in the end.  If Strange did nothing else right at all, it would still have the single cleverest ending of any Marvel movie to date, which requires a speck of a man to face a cosmic god, and still somehow save the day.  There is nothing more enchanting about the film than where it goes from there, resorting to a fairy-tale solution to a world-destroying light show in the sky, instead of the usual punching of robots in the face until they fall apart, along with your enthusiasm.  It's rare that you can walk out of one of these things and feel like you were treated to something even halfway-smart.  So savor this, Dr. Strange's biggest miracle of all—even if you have a nagging feeling that its other, smaller miracles might not have been entirely enough.

Score:  8/10


  1. I think the reason the humor didn't bother me so much is that the gravity of the rest of the piece didn't really resonate with me. And to be fair, I didn't find any of Cumberbatch's comedic dialogue really worked for me. I thought the other actors were making it work, though.

    I hope you're well, the events of the past few days have cast a pretty heavy pall.

    1. I hope you're okay, too. I'm glad you live in CA.

      But, you know, I thought Pennsylvania would be better than South Carolina. I guess I was wrong on every level that it's possible for a man to be wrong on. It's hard to care about anything right now. Hell, I haven't even watched a movie since Carrie, which was on Election Day morning; I was going to review it, and I might, but who cares? Hell, I can barely motivate myself to exercise, although I certainly ought to be doing so, inasmuch as the coming civil war isn't going to be kind to the out-of-shape.

      Anyway, yeah, Tilda Swinton is funny in this movie. That's something.