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Movie Review: Doctor Strange IMAX 3D, or A Marvel Movie on Magic Mushrooms

"This anti-constipation spell isn't working!"

(I have a strict cinematic code, in that I do not watch converted 3D and IMAX releases that were not shot in native IMAX. Doctor Strange was neither shot in IMAX nor in 3D, but I've decided to make an exception, and I think my decision was worth it.)

Marvel Studios releases its most visually stunning spectacle yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). And of course, I don't mean "visually stunning" like "beautifully photographed vistas and sceneries", but rather "intense psychedelic head trip sequences". Think Marvel on acid. Or wait, I got a better one: Marvel movie on magic mushrooms. Four-hit alliteration combo.

Since Marvel is introducing the character of Doctor Strange in his eventual role in the Infinity War, it only makes sense that this will be an origin story. We start with surgeon supreme Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in his natural habitat–the hospital–where he shows off his skill with a scalpel. After an automobile accident renders his hands useless, he is forced to search for a cure to his nerve damage. Western medicine is unable to help him, but he learns of the curious case of Benjamin Bratt's character, who successfully recovered from paralysis thanks to the help of mystics from the East. He undergoes the voyage himself, ending up in the mountains of Nepal, and with the help of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), gains access to Kamar-Taj, the mystical monastery in the mountains. Here he is trained by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and with the help of the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), Doctor Strange learns the magical arts of spell casting, astral projection, inter-dimensional travel, and control of time and space, among others. Everything he learns is put to the test when he confronts the rogue mystic Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), with a final epic battle in Hong Kong against the Dormammu, a powerful being from the dark dimension.

"What do you mean I'm under a multi-picture contract?"

Doctor Strange feels very much in sync with the rest of the films in the MCU, and it has the same feel as the first Iron Man film in tackling the origin of the hero, with Cumberbatch and Wong's onscreen chemistry playing a big part in the film's use of humour to strengthen its comic book tone. This film's strongest suit is, of course, its visual effects and its mind-blowing action sequences, thanks to the real-life technical wizards at Industrial Light and Magic. It's like they all dropped acid and decided to take the space-shifting in Inception and the fifth dimension visuals of Interstellar and pushed the envelope by making it ten times more intense.

See? Psychedelia.

Some people are complaining about the villain Kaecillius, saying his character should've been fleshed out more, and that his lack of character arc is unbefitting someone who serves as the main antagonist to the Sorcerer Supreme. On one hand, I would tend to agree, but only because I see it as a waste of Mads Mikkelsen's acting ability, which director Scott Derrickson should have highlighted onscreen extensively. On the other hand, I see no real harm done, but only because in my opinion, the filmmakers set up Mordo's character arc brilliantly, making the viewer realise in the end that Chiwetel Ejiofor was the actual villain of this story all along.

Every superhero film needs a non-superhero character. For Iron Man, it's Pepper Potts; for Thor, it's Jane Foster; for Doctor Strange, it's Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Their purpose, narratively speaking, is to provide the audience (who are made up of regular, non-superhero people) with someone they can relate to. Christine doesn't serve as Strange's love interest (although romantic tension and history are hinted at), and if viewers find very little with her they can relate to, it shouldn't matter. I think the character of Stephen Strange is who the viewers should be relating to, because he was just ordinary before he decided to take up the mantle of magic. Strange's journey should mirror our own, where we journey from having an inflated ego and a sense of self-importance to the realisation that we know nothing and that we are but a small speck in a vast multiverse.

"I. Want. To. Try. Peyote!"

But Doctor Strange will not go down in cinematic history as the film with the trippiest visuals ever made. I believe this film's contribution to cinema would be its use of magic, not just as a gimmick or some fictional device. The Harry Potter saga was rooted in magic, but only as an element of its fictional universe. Author J.K. Rowling didn't write it as something that she openly advocates and preaches; if anything, it was merely the backdrop of her idea for telling the story of a boy who turns out to be the chosen one. The Wachowski's The Matrix came close to introducing the concepts of high mysticism and new age spirituality to a modern audience desperately in need of a spiritual renaissance, but the problem with it was the science fiction backdrop of the story drowned out any of the messages the filmmakers wanted to send out. Enter now Doctor Strange in 2016, which is the first film I've encountered to actively preach the mystical side of science and spirituality, using actual concepts from Eastern philosophy. True, the space-shifting that's able to bend entire city blocks may be a bit too far out to be considered plausible by the average moviegoer who has never tried any psychedelic substance. But the concepts of energy, the multiverse, and the interconnectedness of all life have been known by sages and shamans for millenia, and it's only high time that Hollywood start making these ideas mainstream.

The Ancient One gives free out-of-body experiences.

Doctor Strange. USA. 2016.

Original rating: 7.9/10
Fight sequences: +0.1
No Rachel McAdams nudity: -0.1
Wong's Beyoncé addiction: +0.1
Magical hand gestures: +0.1
Final rating: 8.1/10


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