Film Review: ‘Alien: Covenant’

In space no-one can hear you philosophise…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper (story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Diverting to investigate the origins of a mysterious signal, the crew of the colony ship Covenant are soon fighting for their lives against horrific and unstoppable creatures…

In review

In 2012, director Ridley Scott reawakened the dormant (some would even say stagnant) Alien franchise with Prometheus, a sort of quasi-prequel to the original 1979 classic that took place within that universe whilst charting its own course by exploring deep existential and philosophical themes concerning the origins of life and the horrific consequences of playing God.  Although divisive amongst fans of the iconic science fiction/horror series, the questions posited by Prometheus and a desire to correct some of its perceived shortcomings have lead to this latest instalment, Alien: Covenant, with mixed results acheived.

Picking up ten years after the close of Prometheus, we are introduced to the colony ship ‘Covenant’, whose core crewmembers are awakened prematurely in critical circumstances by on board synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender).  As vital repairs to the ship are attended to, the interception of a mysterious signal leads to the discovery of a nearby Earth-like planet that the crew believes may be a more idyllic site for colonisation than their original destination and an investigative course deviation warranted.  It’s needless to say from there that ‘paradise’ is ultimately not what it seems and harbours dark secrets that will turn the colonist’s hopes for a prosperous new life into a fight for survival.

Whilst Prometheus took strides to set itself apart from being a traditional Alien film (more an extension of the universe rather than a completely devoted tie-in or continuation of it), Covenant is unmistakably that, returning the series to its harder horror roots, with some twists on familiar elements as it works to further develop the Alien prequel story and continue discussions of life and creation.

For its first half, Covenant takes a slow, measured approach, allowing a steady build-up of intrigue and an ominous sense of foreboding before unleashing monstrosities – both new and old – upon the unsuspecting human players.  It’s as grisly and bloody an affair as director Scott has been teasing, the terror aided by a mix of classic Giger designs with the new ‘neomorph’ creature – a suitable evolution from the creations we saw in Prometheus.  It’s in the film’s second half where things start to derail and go awry as the script, despite lofty ambitions as it references Byron and Mary Shelley, falls victim to cliché and predictability as it begins to check off a grocery list of scenarios similar to what we’ve already seen before and not necessarily helped by lashings of fan service.  It culminates in some exciting but perhaps slightly misguided blockbuster CGI spectacle that attempts to meld Prometheus with Alien and Aliens, leading to a derivative finale that feels rushed and lacking in suspense.  There are also some questionable narrative choices along the way, particularly those concerning the origins of the alien ‘xenomorphs’ that may irk long term fans of the franchise especially considering that (much like Prometheus) it further demystifies Alien.

In terms of the cast, Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts) does a decent job of portraying Daniels, another strong female character type who is actually something a little more than the mere Ripley-clone the marketing suggests.  Watchmen’s Billy Crudup is also great in a believable turn as Oram, the Covenant’s captain and man of faith, whose spirituality permits further exploration of the existential ponderings posed by Prometheus.  It’s also worth mentioning Danny McBride who proves to be another notable member of the cast – and certainly not comic relief – as the ship’s pilot, Tennessee.  However, Alien: Covenant really belongs to the excellent Michael Fassbender who excels in the dual role of android ‘synthetics’ Walter and David.  With a captivatingly subtle and nuanced performance (and an effortless switch between accents) he is arguably the film’s strongest draw.

Although the script for Covenant may be problematic, there’s no faulting Ridley Scott’s direction as he once again demonstrates his talent for world-building and the ability to present a visually astounding film by marrying beautiful and striking photography from its New Zealand locations with brilliant production design that’s only let down by a reduced emphasis on practical effects in the creature action.

Despite its flaws, Covenant is still an enjoyable enough addition to the Alien franchise.  It’s by no means its greatest instalment but there’s no doubt that Ridley Scott’s film is superior to Alien: Resurrection and Alien vs Predator albeit far from being on the same level as Alien and Aliens and is quite likely to prove as divisive as Prometheus.

The bottom line:  Hindered by predictability and a rushed finale, as well as controversial story choices, Alien: Covenant is carried by its arresting visuals and the performance of lead actor Michael Fassbender.

Alien: Covenant is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in the US and worldwide from 19th May.

alien covenant

It’s back: the iconic xenomorph returns to reign terror in ‘Alien: Covenant’.

Film Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Marvel’s cosmic Avengers are back…

 Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell

Directed and Written by: James Gunn (based on the Marvel Comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning) / 116 minutes

What’s it about?

Falling foul of an alien society they were supposed to be working for, the Guardians of the Galaxy find themselves in deep trouble and thrust into an adventure where Peter Quill finally meets his father…

In review

Marvel’s rag-tag bunch of cosmic heroes return in the fun-filled and heartfelt sequel to 2014’s runaway hit, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Picking up a few months after their inaugural adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finds the group, comprising Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and ‘Baby’ Groot being pursued by a squad of Ravagers, hired by a race called the Sovereign to take out the Guardians when a mission goes awry.  It’s during this cross-galaxy chase that Star-Lord comes face to face with his long lost father, ‘Ego’ – played by screen icon Kurt Russell.

If the first Guardians of the Galaxy was more concerned about introducing the various characters and the coming together of a team a la Avengers Assemble, then Vol. 2 goes a little deeper and more personal whilst still delivering the charm, laughs (in this instance a Marvel film where the humour is actually a welcome and natural component) and excitement audiences will expect.

As Peter Quill/Star-lord, Chris Pratt is once again the charismatic and heroic lead whose father issues and yearnings for Zoe Saldana’s Gamora form the backbone of the film’s emotional crux.  The casting of Kurt Russell (whose Tango & Cash co-star, Sylvester Stallone also appears) as Quill’s father is a real coup with a reliably great performance from the star of numerous hits from 80s cult classics Escape from New York and The Thing to more recent turns in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and goliath blockbuster The Fate of the Furious.  It’s a role made all the more enjoyable by a solid rapport with Pratt and the script’s satisfying character arcs.

Vin Diesel earns another easy payday as the cute youngling version of Groot (see the events of the last film) who together with the gun-toting mania of wisecracking space Raccoon, Rocket (a well-cast Bradley Cooper) and the hilarious and inappropriate perspectives of Dave Bautista’s Drax, especially in his interactions with Ego’s companion, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), facilitate the biggest laughs.

Complicating matters for the Guardians is the return of Michael Rooker’s Yondu who, having fallen out of favour with his fellow Ravagers, soon finds himself having to ally with Rocket and Groot in desperate circumstances.  Also back is Karen Gillan as Nebula – the ‘other’ daughter of galactic overlord (and mega villain of the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War) Thanos – whose adversarial relationship with Gamora is explored in greater detail, adding some nice dramatic weight that’s to the benefit of both Gillan and Saldana and their respective characters.

Writer and Director James Gunn infuses Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 with the same enthusiasm and quirks for this second helping of fun space adventure that melds soulful and funky 70s tunes and influences of Star Wars and Flash Gordon with a good story brought to life via lavish, colourful visuals, equally colourful characters and rollicking action that still manages to excite despite culminating in the usual disaster-laden cataclysm of CGI doom.  The only real shortcomings arise from the early separation of the team that the script calls for and like the first Guardians there’s some sluggish pacing here and there and it perhaps feels a little overindulgent at times – but it’s mostly forgivable when the overall results are as entertaining as this.

The bottom line:  A fun, exciting and at times emotional blockbuster ride, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is bound to be another crowd-pleasing hit for Disney and Marvel Studios.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide from 5th May.

Guardians 2

They’re back! Marvel’s cosmic crusaders return in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ from Marvel Studios/Disney.

Film Review: ‘Arrival’

Denis Villeneuve delivers a slice of remarkable science fiction cinema 

that’s far from being a typical blockbuster…

_

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma

Directed by:  Denis Villeneuve / Written by:  Eric Heisserer (adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang)

What’s it about?

When strange alien vessels appear around the Earth, linguist Louise Banks is called upon by the U.S. Military to try and communicate with the mysterious visitors…

In review

Wowed by critics and earning a respectable box office gross on its theatrical run late last year, director Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent and mesmerising sci-fi mystery has far more in common with the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar than more straight forward, crowd-pleasing (but generally enjoyable on their own merits) alien invasion blockbusters such as Independence Day.

Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, Arrival (not to be confused with the Charlie Sheen starring bargain-bin 1996 B-movie The Arrival) is beautifully acted, hauntingly realised and thought provoking with its intellectually challenging and mind-bending hard SF concepts that shuns the more generic, formulaic and predictable tropes that all too often afflict the genre.

Arrival concerns the mysterious appearance of twelve pebble-like extra-terrestrial vessels around the globe and the efforts to form a means of communication with the alien visitors and discover their intentions and purpose for coming to Earth.  Heading up the central cast is Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics expert enlisted by the military to board the alien ‘shell’ floating above the United States.  Sorely overlooked at this year’s Academy Awards, Adams delivers a powerhouse performance that subtly yet believably conveys the intellect and emotional strife of her character.  Supporting Adams is Jeremy Renner as physicist Ian Donnelly, a role that demonstrates his ability to stretch beyond the action-star heroics of the Mission: Impossible and Avengers franchises.  Completing the central core of characters is Forest Whitaker in a suitably authoritative turn as Colonel Weber.

Avoiding cliché, Arrival depicts the reaction of the global governments, their military solutions, the awe of the scientific community and the escalating panic of the world’s population with a laudable degree of realism and plausibility, presenting a painfully true reflection upon the world as it stands today.

Earning plaudits for his work on Sicario, Denis Villeneuve – currently putting the finishing touches to Blade Runner 2049 – brings strokes of arthouse cinema to Arrival whilst maintaining a focus on the principal cast, keeping the overall experience dazzling and captivating via Bradford Young’s incredible cinematography and Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully atmospheric and immersive music score (embellished by the film’s inspired audio design), skilfully ratcheting up the tension as the final act satisfyingly unfolds.

Sure to be revered as a modern science fiction classic in the years to come, at its heart and beneath heady intellectual ideas, Arrival contains messages about communication and understanding that expresses a sense of hope, even in the face of darkness.

The bottom line:  Haunting, beautifully constructed and simply mesmerising, Arrival is a wondrous piece of intellectual SF cinema that’s masterfully directed and superbly acted.

Arrival is available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats now.

Arrival

Preparing to make contact: Amy Adams stars in Denis Villeneuve’s captivating sci-fi mystery ‘Arrival’.

Film Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (spoiler free)

The iconic King of an equally iconic lost world is reborn in a franchise expanding blockbuster…

Starring:  Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Terry Notary

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts / Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly (story by John Gatins) / 118 minutes

What’s it about?

A team composed of scientists and military officers mount an expedition to a mysterious lost island in the South Pacific…

In review

Far from being a masterpiece, Kong: Skull Island isn’t in the same league as the classic original 1933 King Kong or Peter Jackson’s superb 2005 remake but is certainly superior to the creaky 1976 version, which starred Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.

Taking place as the Vietnam War is coming to an end, the narrative of Skull Island is served by a fairly simple, derivative, yet functional and entertaining script (from screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly) that’s hindered by weak characterisation and occasionally cheesy dialogue that underserves and underutilises a stellar cast.  Tom Hiddleston (Thor’s Loki) and Brie Larson (awarded an Oscar for her role in Room) are capable leads as former S.A.S. tracker James Conrad and ‘anti-war’ photographer Mason Weaver, respectively, with support from Samuel L. Jackson as tough-as-nails military man Lt. Colonel Packard, John Goodman as the expedition’s scientific leader Bill Randa, Corey Hawkins as fellow scientist Houston Brooks, Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Major Jack Chapman and John C. Reilly, on hand to provide doses of comic relief as Marlow, a marooned World War II pilot.  The cast is further filled out by a set of largely forgettable ancillary characters.

The pace of Skull Island is fairly tight which for the most part is fine, but the journey to the mythical Skull Island and the expedition’s first encounter with its ‘King’ all happens a little too quickly.  Some viewers might favour this, but it’s arguable that some extra time spent establishing the characters and a more steady build up to Kong’s reveal could have been of benefit.  That being said, the titular ape’s introduction is pretty spectacular and does not disappoint.

Where Skull Island ultimately succeeds then, is in its visuals and creature conflicts.  Whilst Skull Island itself lacks much of the mystery and creepiness of Peter Jackson’s version, it’s a suitably primal eco-system and Kong himself proves to be a magnificently realised creation, a towering behemoth (at 100ft tall this is the largest version of the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ ever to grace the screen) rendered in CGI with incredibly intricate detail, aided by the performance capture work of Terry Notary.  Kong aside, there’s a decent range of creatures of varied design from giant stick insects and arachnids to the ominously named ‘Skull Crawlers’ that become the main threat to the central characters and provide Kong with a formidable foe to grapple with, leading to a final act that’s quite exhilarating.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (currently tapped to helm the long gestating Metal Gear Solid feature film) handles the effects-driven action with relative ease and delivers some pleasing monster smack downs that will wow and thrill.  The Vietnam era setting is also in the film’s overall favour and affords Vogt-Roberts the opportunity to evoke vibes of Apocalypse Now, made all the more indelible by some wonderful photography from Batman v Superman cinematographer Larry Fong.  It also allows the otherwise disappointing script to inject a dash of well-placed satire.

Given Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ plans to develop a shared cinematic universe that will incorporate that other iconic screen monster – Godzilla – there are naturally some franchise connections within Skull Island, facilitated by the inclusion of the Monarch organisation that featured in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and fans are advised to stick around for a tantalising post-credits scene.

More of a blockbuster budgeted B-movie than a modern classic, Skull Island is undemanding fun that’s a little dumb yet occasionally rises to something greater via its visual effects and creature bashing action.

The bottom line:  Entertaining and often exciting, Kong: Skull Island is let down by thinly drawn characters and some weak scripting yet succeeds with its visual thrills.

Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas now.

Kong

The gigantic King of Skull Island roars onto the screen in Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ blockbuster ‘Kong: Skull Island’.

Film Review: ‘Logan’ (spoiler free)

Hugh Jackman hangs up those iconic claws in a fitting farewell…

 –

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant

Directed by:  James Mangold / Written by:  Scott Frank, James Mangold & Michael Green (story by James Mangold) / 135 minutes

What’s it about?

Logan – the mutant once known as Wolverine – now spending his days caring for a frail Charles Xavier, is thrust into one last adventure as he travels across North America in search of a place of safety for the mysterious young mutant named Laura…

In review

Seventeen years after making his debut as the iconic Marvel Comics character Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Hugh Jackman delivers a career-high performance in his much touted final appearance as the adamantium-clawed hero.

Taking place in 2029, at a time when there are very few mutants left, Logan (based loosely on the “Old Man Logan” comic books by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven) sees the man once known as ‘the Wolverine’ in a dark place in ever darker times.  His mutant healing abilities diminishing, Logan now goes by the name of James Howlett scraping together a living as a limo driver to pay for medication to subdue the increasingly uncontrollable mental powers of an elderly Charles Xavier.  Heavily burdened and wearier than he’s ever been and turning to alcohol to numb pains both physical and emotional, Logan seems to have no purpose until he meets a young girl named Laura who he discovers has abilities much like his own.  With Laura being tracked by a team of mutant hunters (lead by Boyd Holbrook’s Donald Pierce), it’s not long before the trio of Logan, Xavier and Laura hit the road in search of safety.

Written and Directed by James Mangold – who also tackled Jackman’s previous solo outing in The WolverineLogan is an atypical breed of a superhero film, of course it has the comic book/science fiction elements that come with the territory, but it largely plays out as an intimate, quite often brutal character drama and a journey that’s both thrilling and sombre as it evokes nifty vibes of the classic western and Mad Max.

Whilst not being overly concerned about continuity, there are still hints and references to Logan’s overall placing in the X-Men film universe without becoming burdened by it, the history of the X-Men themselves almost mythologised in the pages of dusty old comic books.  It’s a standalone story that anyone can enjoy but all the more effective and satisfying for those who have followed the screen exploits of Messrs Jackman and Stewart all of these years.

Jackman excels in the lead role that has defined his career, delivering his gruff and grizzly best with more than a few shades of melancholia.  Equally impressive is Patrick Stewart who relishes in providing a deeper and more complex portrayal of Charles Xavier than we’ve ever seen that’s as crushingly tragic as it is at times outright funny.  As Laura, Dafne Keen makes a strong and memorable screen debut, playing an important part in making the growing bond between Logan and the young mutant one of the film’s clearest highlights.

Rounding out the already commendable cast is Boyd Holbrook as the appropriately snarly Pierce, British comedian Stephen Merchant, in a surprisingly enjoyable turn as Caliban, Logan and Xavier’s quirky mutant companion and a sorely underused Richard E. Grant as villainous scientist Dr. Zander Rice.

Whilst Logan doesn’t feature the elaborate CGI spectacle and destruction we see in the main X-Men film series it’s certainly not short of action and given the film’s adult rating (15 certificate here in the UK, R-rated in the States) we get to see Wolvie fully unleashed in no holds-barred, Berseker Rage fuelled combat.  It’s unapologetically brutal, shockingly visceral and it’s what all Wolverine fans have wanted to see for a long time.

Logan does at times feel a little too slow and drawn out, yet just about manages to not completely drag and is made up for by the strong performances of the central cast and it’s moments of cutting, blood-soaked action.  In the end, Logan comes out as a satisfying finale that aptly closes out to the gravely, aged tones of the late Johnny Cash.

The bottom line:  Hugh Jackman bows out in a fittingly dramatic and brutal finale to his tenure as the iconic Wolverine in a film that binds fine performances with well-drawn character drama.

Logan is in cinemas now.

The sun sets on Hugh Jackman's time as Marvel Comics character Wolverine in 20th Century Fox's 'Logan'.

The sun sets on Hugh Jackman’s time as Marvel Comics character Wolverine in 20th Century Fox’s ‘Logan’.

Film Review: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (spoiler free)

Starring:  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen

Directed by:  Gareth Edwards / Written by:  Chris Wietz & Tony Gilroy (story by John Knoll & Gary Whitta) / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescued from imprisonment, Jyn Erso is enlisted by the Rebel Alliance for a mission that will lead to the retrieval of the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the Empire’s new planet-killing weapon…

In review

Following the colossal success of The Force Awakens, Rogue One sees Disney/Lucasfilm unleash the first of their standalone ‘Star Wars Story’ anthology films to help sate the cravings of audiences whilst they await Episode VIII.  Such a project could easily be labelled as greedy and corporate minded, but luckily Rogue One proves its worth as a satisfying and engaging addition to the Star Wars universe.

Set prior to the opening events of 1977’s Star Wars – now retroactively known as Episode IV: A New HopeRogue One slots comfortably between the prequel trilogy and those much beloved and iconic original films without feeling contrived or unnecessary as it embellishes A New Hope by telling the story of the Rebel Alliance’s daring mission to retrieve the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the evil Empire’s new devastating, planet-killing weapon.  Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) is a strong and capable lead as convict-turned-Rebel ally Jyn Erso, daughter of Imperial Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who, together with Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) assembles a rag-tag band of fighters including Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man who is strong with the force, his companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to battle against Ben Medelsohn’s Orson Krennic and the forces of the Galactic Empire.

Whilst Jones and Luna are clear standouts and best served by the screenplay’s characterisation, it’s reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO – voiced by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk – that often steals the show with a snarky and cantankerous attitude that provides much of the film’s dark humour and even some of its heart and soul.  Mads Mikkelsen (most recently providing the villainy in Marvel’s Doctor Strange) makes the most of his limited screen time but at least gets to make more of an impression than Forest Whitaker who is criminally underused as the gruff Rebel fighter Saw Gerrera, a face from the Erso’s past who would’ve warranted further development along with Jyn’s earlier years to further flesh out her ‘rebellious’ backstory.  Small quibbles aside, despite a slightly sluggish start Rogue One jumps to hyperspace once we get to the central plot, sending the viewer on an epic, action-packed ride that makes amends for any earlier narrative shortfalls and pacing issues.

This is most definitely still a Star Wars film yet one that is more grounded in the nitty gritty of warfare (with subtle shades of Saving Private Ryan and Platoon) and doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of ‘good vs evil’, the more mystical elements of the franchise mostly restricted to Imwe’s sporadic ramblings concerning the force.  It’s certainly all in the favour of Rogue One, mining some largely unexplored territory that enriches it all the more.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) stages some incredibly exciting and visually impressive set pieces that easily rival the action of The Force Awakens, much like what J.J. Abrams achieved there’s a real sense of heft and physicality to the film’s elaborate space battles as well as its ground focused combat as Rebel soldiers take on the Empire’s Stormtroopers and X-Wings swoop in to tackle Imperial walkers.

Rogue One not only looks great but also via its production design and costumes faithfully replicates the era of A New Hope as it was created by George Lucas and his team back in 1977.  Yes, it can still be taken as a standalone story but for fans of Star Wars, it’s actually Rogue One’s connectivity to the overall universe and saga – complemented by numerous easter eggs and lashings of fan service (some more pleasing than others, with the inclusion of Darth Vader handled particularly well) – that is perhaps one of its greatest appeals.

The bottom line:  The Star Wars franchise continues confidently with the highly enjoyable and epically realised Rogue One, providing plenty of excitement for fans and casual viewers alike.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.

Felicity Jones leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm's 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm’s ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’.

Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ (spoiler free)

Mighty Marvel casts its spell…

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen.

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson / Written by:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill / 115 minutes

What’s it about?

His hands mangled in a car crash, brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s career is seemingly over.  Exhausting all surgical efforts to repair his injuries, Strange travels to a place called Kamar-Taj where an encounter with a mysterious figure sees him thrust into the world of the mystic arts…

In review

With the runaway successes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Marvel Studios have proved adept at bringing lesser and more obscure comic book properties to the big screen and in a manner that manages to please fans and regular audiences alike.  Doctor Strange would immediately seem a far trickier and more daring gamble than those previous hits but for the most part, Marvel Studios succeed once more.

Based on the Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the journey of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange from arrogance to fall from grace and eventual redemption may be a little clichéd but via the film’s exploration of magical abilities and mystic realms there lies another dimension to the storytelling that opens up the possibilities for future Marvel Studios productions.  It’s fair to say in that sense that this makes the “Sorcerer Supreme” an important character as the looming apex of Avengers: Infinity War approaches.

In the role of Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong lead and although for some it may take a little time to adjust to his American accent, the Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star laps up the material handed to him in a performance that’s impassioned, witty and by the end of it all, noble.  Seemingly the requisite love interest, Rachel McAdams is somewhat underserved as Christine Palmer although she does share some vital scenes with Cumberbatch that helps the audience become more invested in the character and his arc throughout this origin story.

Tilda Swinton is wise and otherworldly as the enigmatic Ancient One and co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong fit nicely into the mix as fellow sorcerers Mordo and Wong respectively.  As the main antagonist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius – a former pupil seeking to unlock the secrets of dark magic –  has some great moments, rising to the challenge of being pitted against the talents of Cumberbatch and Swinton but is ultimately less memorable than Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) or James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

There’s a slight over reliance on humour at times, parts of it are welcome relief but some moments feel forced, included merely for the sake of it and arguably undermine several key scenes that would have benefitted from a more dramatic tone.  Where Doctor Strange really excels is via its jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic visuals as director Scott Derrickson intertwines influences of Escher with the cinematic awe of Inception and the mesmerising psychedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey that bring the trippy imaginings of Messrs. Lee and Ditko breathtakingly to life.  The extra expense of an IMAX 3D ticket is fully warranted for the fullest possible immersion in the mind-bending spectacle of folding cityscapes and unravelling astral planes.

Ultimately it’s the visual elements that gloss over the overall flaws in the tone and narrative of Doctor Strange but there’s no denying the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and the potential of further adventures of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts.

The bottom line:  Despite some formulaic elements and jarring moments of silliness, Doctor Strange is a reliably entertaining and visually stunning addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is screening in UK cinemas now and opens in the US and worldwide from 4th November.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios' 'Doctor Strange'.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios’ ‘Doctor Strange’.