Thoughts On: Doctor Strange (2016)
An arrogant doctor is left debilitated after a major car crash, and so seeks a cure in ancient mythicality.
There’s a few things that really get under my skin when it comes to movies. But, one of the worst is a ridiculous ancient, mythical, martial artsy, mysterious culture, higher power, boring, formal stiffness. You see this in almost all historical dramas; everyone looks like a starch gun was put to the pucker of their asshole and they were shot full of pretentious rigidity. This can work, like in a film such as Barry Lyndon, but when done wrong… it’s so annoying. This is what you see throughout Doctor Strange, and it is its biggest flaw. Before getting into that, however, let’s do a bit of an overview.
After seeing Civil War last year, a film that I enjoyed, but not completely, I think I hit my threshold of superhero movie intake. People have been saying it for years, but, there’s just too many of them coming out. This is why I held off from watching Doctor Strange for so long; these moves are becoming monotonous, I’ve never been a fan of the comic books and… yeah, they’re just ok movies. I go to see many of them, however, because huge blockbusters are a significant part of cinema that is important, in my view, to stay in contact with. But, as anyone could tell you, too much of anything is not good. In respect to superhero movies, this is particularly relevant and all comes down to their faults and achievements. Films like Doctor Strange, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers all do one or two things incredibly well. For most of these movies, that thing is special effects or fight sequences. But, characters in all of these movies are, at best, all right. Plots are always weak and contrived. Narrative meaning is iffy. Cinematography and camera movement is flashy, but never really a great showcase of cinematic language. Acting is always pretty mediocre. And the control over cinematic spaces is rather erratic.
You see all of this in Doctor Strange. The Ancient One (a truly stupid name) has a few moments in which you understand and empathise with her – but never one in which you actually care about or are invested in her. Doctor Strange himself kind of grows on you, and so isn’t a bad character. Everyone else just falls into obscurity. The plot of this movie is paced horribly; too quickly are we forced into the second act as the character arc never keeps up with the thing after thing after thing happening. In such, you always feel characters inserted into the narrative, never really apart of it or causal bodies, instead, just caricatures stumbling through set-pieces. The narrative meaning is… nothing worth delving into right now. The cinematography, camera direction and general seam between live action and CGI is great at some points, but pretty bad at others. But, the worst aspect of this element is the lighting; it always seems as if bodies are floating in front of a green screen as kaleidoscopic backgrounds whir. The direction is, as implied, flashy, but never truly powerful as their is no immersive tone or atmosphere generated to keep you locked into the film; it’s flashing lights and moving parts that instead keep the eye glued to the screen. The acting is fine, but Cumberbatch’s accent is off-putting and no one is funny – though, that has a lot to do with the flat script. And speaking of, the dialogue throughout the film awful; all is aimed toward the audience as characters explain things or talk at each other, never to, leaving the mechanics of the script entirely transparent in a rather damning way (the script simply isn’t that clever when it comes to dialogue or character). And lastly, this movie is, in parts, pretty ridiculous as there is a terrible line drawn between fantasy and reality. This is sometimes done for comedic effect, but, everything felt aesthetically, as well as tonally, messy – which really takes you out of the film.
Before moving on to the better elements of Doctor Strange, what I won’t write about yet again is the annoying trend in script writing – especially in Marvel movies and big blockbusters – that tries to be self-referential and funny, but just comes of ludicrous and pretty dismissive of the audience. So, for more on this subject, check out the post on The Art Of Self-Referentialism and The Hyperbole knowing that all of what I talk about here applies to a vast majority of this movie’s narrative approach and comedic approach (save one or two moments of comedy).
Ok, so, you all know it’s coming, but the visuals in this movie are pretty amazing. The play with dimensions, mirror images, kaleidoscopes and other visual spectacles are what make this film. This of course builds off of what Inception did in 2010, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this movie is a hack or is stealing Nolan’s visuals. Since the arguable birth of the cinematic epoch we are in now, the digital age of cinema, that begun in the early 70s with the co-founders of Pixar…
… since this hand was constructed, movies have been making huge strides towards new cinematic possibilities. We talked about this when looking at the first fully computer generated feature film, but a bomb when off in 1995 that said: the free range of animation has officially found its place in cinema. Previous films like Terminator 2…
… already implied this, and from the 90s onward we’ve been hit with movies such as Forrest Gump, The Matrix, the Transformer movies, Avatar, Inception and now Doctor Strange. There are elements of all of these movies that are highly experimental and innovative. However, we don’t really think of them as such because of their yearning to find balance between form and content – between being an experimental film that uses CGI and a huge blockbuster that has to earn its budget back. Because of this, many of the films mentioned have significant problems. The Matrix is badly written – especially in the dialogue and character department – and so is pretty cheesy and clearly suppressing all that was wrong with the proceeding films in the trilogy. I don’t need to tell you about the Transformers movies, and I don’t think I need to tell you about Avatar either. Inception is far too plot centric and realist in my view. And finally, Doctor Strange… we’ll dive back into this shortly. What is universally wrong with all of these films is simply a lack of bringing all the elements of filmmaking together as to create a thoroughly strong film. And this is why I don’t think we’ve had a masterpiece of the digital age that truly conveys the power of our technological times. However… yet. We haven’t had a masterpiece yet. So, what I want to explore today, as I have with some of the films mentioned already, is where they’re going wrong, so that we may be able to better envision where a more cohesive blockbuster will come from. I’m not saying I know the code and formula for a masterpiece, I only claim to see faults that could have been avoided in this movie.
To do this, let’s take a look at 2 (6) movies.
What makes Kung Fu Panda so special, in my view, is its ability balance comedy with action in a fantasy realm. The master of action-comedy is… do I even need to say his name… Jackie Chan. And we see elements of Chan’s ingenious approach to action in Kung Fu Panda. Whilst Kung Fu Panda isn’t Police Story, Who Am I?, Drunken Master or even Rush Hour, it allows an action-comedy sensibility to pervade its entire narrative. We see this in a film like The Lego Movie too. Lego Movie takes the formal approach of someone like Michael Bay, but executes it with tiny plastic figurines. This gives the film both irony and genuity. And this is, in a certain sense, the definition of action-comedy; you are counter-balancing seriousness with levity. This is what Kung Fu Pander masterfully captures in my view; one moment you’re laughing as Po bounces down stairs and the next your locked in to a fully-fledged action sequence that you’re genuinely invested in. This is what makes Kung Fu Panda special (the later films don’t really need to be seen).
The relevance of Kung Fu Panda to Doctor Strange should then be pretty obvious. Both films mean to integrate seriousness and absurdity into their narratives; Kung Fu Panda does this with action-comedy and Doctor Strange does this with a play with realism and fantasy (with a few sprinkles of comedy). Most of the comedy in this film misses the mark, however, because of problems with self-referentialism which we won’t go into. And the line between fantasy and realism isn’t handled too well either because there simply isn’t a sense of genuity captured by this narrative. I’ve often used to Breakfast At Tiffany’s Holly Golightly to best explain this paradigm.
Holly is a ‘real phoney’. She’s vapid and a bit of a dick, but honestly so. This achieves the Howard Stern, Simon Cowell, Bill Maher or Jeremy Clarkson effect whereby you know these people are dicks… absolute dicks… but, for some reason, they’re bearable and/or entertaining for a surprising amount of people (you see this with some politicians too – there’s no need to name names though). This ‘real phoney’ effect can be seen not just in people or characters, but in movies. Two brilliant examples of this are Kung Fu Panda and The Lego Movies. Yes, they’re dumb, but… in a nice way.
This is what Doctor Strange lacks, and this all comes down to the line between its elements of realism and fantasy. Comedy is used throughout the film as some kind of buffer, but, for the most part, you just don’t feel the film owning who it is as everything comes of awkward and unbalanced. This leads on to our reference to The Lord Of The Rings.
As we all know, there was quite a bit of controversy over the casting of Tilda Swinton. I’m not interested in the debate on the colour of people’s skin or their ethnic background when it comes to actors. However, was she the right person to be cast? It doesn’t matter; the script sucks. Look to the cast of The Lord Of The Rings…
No one here is a Wizard, Hobbit, Elf or Dwarf, but you believe they are. Why? Great acting, casting, writing, special effects and costume design. Now, I’m not trying to make a comparison between The Ancient One and the characters here to in turn say that, because Elijah Wood wasn’t a Hobbit, Swinton could be a Tibetan wizard, monk, thing – that would be a false equivalency as Tibetans and Hobbits are clearly worlds apart. What I mean to imply here is that the good writing, special effects and so on that are present in The Lord Of The Rings aren’t present in Doctor Strange. And this all negates the argument of casting in my view as changing actors wouldn’t make the script much better, nor would it change the director’s character choices. And if we are only concerned with the quality of the film, not the politics around it, then this is what primarily matters.
So, what truly distinguishes The Lord Of The Rings’ characters from those in Doctor Strange is the emphasis on what makes someone like Frodo like us, instead of different from us. In other words, we are made to see Frodo, and all the other characters, as people more than we are made to see them as wizards, hobbits or elves. With the constant philosophy, hand gestures and other stupid shit (that isn’t reversed with a WiFi password joke), the characters in Doctor Strange are mere caricatures – just like the characters from a film like Enter The Dragon are…
However, whilst Enter The Dragon is designed (maybe inadvertently) to not be taken seriously, Doctor Strange clearly means to be more complex (taken seriously at one moment, laughed at the next). This is all managed horribly though as characters aren’t, or don’t come off as, genuine people. They are a doctor or a monk or an evil dark-side being. They are never Steve or… whatever.
All of this comes back to the opening. This movie is just too stiff and formal for its own good. It tries to be natural and relax with its writing, acting and so on. But, it just comes off as contrived. So, because there is no management of fantasy and realism like there is in Kung Fu Panda, and because there is no genuity like there is in Lord Of The Rings, Doctor Strange sucks quite a bit. However, it has some amazing sequences and is clearly attempting to change what mainstream audiences will come to accept from blockbusters in regard to surrealism, experimentation, CGI, such and so on.
The note I’ll end this post on is a simple call for more movies like Doctor Strange. But, movies that are more self-aware of what is wrong and what can be fixed in films like them. We need this because Marvel seems to be copy and pasting their formal and aesthetic approach to cinema and narrative across all of their films. This produces a consistent stream of good movies, but, without things getting better, these ‘good’ movies are becoming banal and pretty annoying.
What are your thoughts? Did you like Doctor Strange? Do you think it could be improved?
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