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’.

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

This review contains SPOILERS

 

please don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen Star Trek Into Darkness

 

A bold new future for the beloved and enduring science fiction franchise…

 

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Peter Weller

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / Written by:  Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof / 132 minutes

What’s Star Trek Into Darkness about?

Captain James T. Kirk takes the U.S.S. Enterprise into Klingon space in pursuit of rogue Starfleet Officer John Harrison…

Film review

Into Darkness is the long awaited sequel to producer/director J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009).  Since its theatrical release earlier this year it has gone on to become the most financially successful of all of the franchise’s big screen adventures and despite overall critical acclaim has proven divisive among the fans (but isn’t this always the case?).

As a life-long Star Trek fan (since the early eighties) I can safely say that although it may not quite have the impact of the 2009 prequel/reboot, Into Darkness is one hell of a ride that acknowledges the hallmarks of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst providing plenty of the rollercoaster excitement that modern summer blockbuster audiences expect.

Into Darkness continues to further explore the characters of the original Star Trek series and films with a well-chosen cast who, beyond merely channelling the performances of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy (who appears in a short cameo) et al give fresh, yet familiar interpretations of those iconic characters.

Although each of the characters is given their moment in the spotlight (Scotty resigns, Chekov reluctantly dons a red shirt, Sulu takes command and Uhura tries to reason with Klingons), the film’s focus is really, rightfully, on the burgeoning friendship between Kirk and Spock with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto both proving their worth as successors to Messrs’ Shatner and Nimoy.  Sadly Karl Urban’s McCoy is a little side-lined as a result but hopefully future sequels will explore and develop the infamous Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika.

The Enterprise crew face a more complex villain this time out in Benedict Cumberbatch’s enigmatic John Harrison (more on him shortly) as well as Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (the ever superb Peter Weller) and are joined by Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) – a character that fans will of course be aware of.

Just as the original Star Trek television series provided commentary on issues and concerns of the 1960s (such as the Vietnam War and Civil Rights), Into Darkness addresses topics relating to terrorism through Harrison’s vendetta against Starfleet and Marcus’ push for militarisation in the wake of Vulcan’s destruction.

Gladly the screenwriters understand the characters and core concepts of Gene Rodenberry’s vision for Star Trek.  Following atrocities committed by Harrison (including the death of Admiral Pike) we see Kirk set out on a mission of vengeance, a basic human reaction, tempered by Spock’s sense of logic and morality.  With the Enterprise carrying a complement of long range torpedoes (Scotty all too aptly reminding Kirk that their mission is that of peaceful exploration), which mirrors the real world drone strikes carried out in the Middle East.  It’s all played out as Gene Rodenberry would have intended, presenting our heroes with ethical dilemmas that they must face and overcome to do what is morally right.

One of the most divisive points of Star Trek Into Darkness is the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain.  I’m still surprised that Khan was chosen (even with all the prior speculation) and despite my initial trepidations I feel it worked out well, Cumberbatch is a powerful presence and although physically dissimilar from Ricardo Montalban makes the character his own.  Another bone of contention for some of the fans is the homages to Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.  They do work – the reversal of the Kirk/Spock roles from the finale of Wrath of Khan being a key example.  It’s relevant to the story and character arcs of the film, bolstered by heart-wrenching performances (complemented by another great score from Michael Giacchino) by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.  I’d say it’s permitted this time around so long as future films don’t make a habit of it.

The screenplay holds together rather well although it’s a shame that Khan’s back story wasn’t fleshed out a little more, perhaps via a short series of simple flashbacks.  It wouldn’t have bloated the run time or slowed down the pace yet would have added more weight to the villain’s motives (I look forward to IDW Publishing’s forthcoming comic book mini-series then).

Aside from being a Star Trek film, this is also a popcorn summer blockbuster and the action is riveting and epic with many standout moments, from the Enterprise emerging from the bottom of an alien ocean (during the film’s Indiana Jones-esque opening) and Khan’s attack on Starfleet Headquarters to a tense encounter with the Klingons, the Enterprise’s plummet Earthward and Spock’s climactic edge of the seat chase of Khan through (and above) the streets of San Francisco.  It’s also not as dark as the title suggests with some welcome levity via McCoy’s persistent metaphors and Scotty…well Scotty in general!

J.J. Abrams directs proceedings with reliable aplomb, the more intimate dialogue heavy character scenes flow at an appropriate pace, balanced with the large scale effects-laden action sequences.

By the end of the film there’s a true sense that the Enterprise crew have become a family, Kirk has grown and earned his command and the respect and trust of his crew, ready to set forth and seek out new life forms and new civilizations.

Standout moment

A crippled Enterprise plummets to Earth, with the crew literally hanging for life – their only hope for salvation is the re-initialisation of the ship’s warp core.  Despite Scotty’s protests Kirk decides to sacrifice himself for the needs of the many…

The Blu-ray

Star Trek Into Darkness is presented in its entirety in 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen meaning that unfortunately Paramount have opted not to preserve the IMAX scenes.  This aside the transfer is as flawless as you would expect from a modern production.

Extras are light with only a series of interesting, albeit short, production featurettes included (there’s no commentary).  By comparison the 2009 Star Trek release came with a separate Blu-ray disc full of extras.  It’s a massive shame and sadly a continuing trend with Paramount Home Entertainment releases.

The bottom line:  Star Trek Into Darkness is a solid second entry in the new cinematic Star Trek universe with moral issues balanced with good characterisation, strong cast performances and breath-taking action and excitement.

Star Trek Into Darkness is out now on Blu-ray (2D and 3D editions) from Paramount Home Entertainment (also available on DVD and digital download).

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) confront the captured John Harrison (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch).

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) confront the captured John Harrison (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch).