'Doctor Strange' is sheer cinematic sorcery

Marvel's fast, funny and freaky film pulls a spectacular rabbit from the special effects hat, but the story lacks magic.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read
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I remember the best film I had ever seen. I bounced out of the theatre, fizzing with excitement at the sheer cinematic spectacle I'd just witnessed. "That was the best film I've ever seen!" I yelled at my older brother. I was 16 and had just watched "The Fifth Element".

I'm not saying that's the best film ever made, of course. But it seared itself into my mind with the thrill of something I'd never seen before.

I had that feeling with "The Matrix". I had that feeling with "Inception".

I so, so nearly had that feeling with "Doctor Strange".

"Doctor Strange" is the latest movie to bring a Marvel comics hero from page to screen. In this case it's surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch somewhere between Robert Downey Jr in "Iron Man" and wonky-accented Hugh Laurie from "House".

I admit I was dubious as to how well a weirdly bearded wizard would fit into the Marvel cinematic universe of buff superheroes and high-tech punch-ups, but "Doctor Strange" is Marvel through and through. It's action-packed, it's really funny and it looks absolutely incredible.

Seriously, even if you're not that keen on superheroes, you owe it to your eyeballs to see this on the biggest screen you can. "Strange" takes the world-warping folding-city effects of "Inception" and cranks things way past 11. The trippy kaleidoscopic visuals are pure cinematic sorcery.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is weird wizard Doctor Strange in our exclusive illustration by Marvel comic artist Christian Ward.

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And where "The Matrix" and "Inception" dropped jaws with just one innovative effects technique, "Strange" does something loopy and gorgeous in each new set piece. From a mind-bending mystic trip across the astral plane to a fight that unfolds backwards, the film raises the freaky stakes with every gobsmacking new effect. Even if you hate superheroes, it has to be seen to be believed.

So why didn't I leave the movie buzzing with excitement at what I'd just witnessed? Because although it looks like nothing you've ever seen, the story lacks magic.

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Let's go back to "The Matrix" for a second, because "Doctor Strange" draws on the same template. Our hero is shown a parallel world by a powerful mentor and must learn to manipulate the new reality. One of the many clever things about "The Matrix" is that the alternate world where the rules don't apply is only teased, glimpsed and hinted at to begin with. We're drawn in along with the hero until, like him, we're desperate to know "What is the Matrix?" When the famous bullet-time effect is finally unleashed, it sears into your retinas.

"Strange", by contrast, slaps its special effects budget on the table right from the get-go. The film opens with a stunningly clever fight sequence that visually knocks "Inception" into a cocked hat, but fails where "Inception" succeeds because the scrap is between two people we don't know or care about. There's no build-up to the set pieces.

Stephen Strange sets out on his quest for spiritual enlightenment by asking some random dude where to go and then going there. The character doesn't earn the eye-popping spectacle any more than the film does.

It's also disappointing that the magic used by the characters simply conjures up physical weapons. With all the trippy invention flying around, it's a shame that confrontations come down to the brawling and grappling you get in every superhero movie, even if they do take place in cities turning themselves upside down and inside out.

And yet again, Loki excepted, Marvel fails to deliver a compelling villain. Despite showing off a cracking line in neon-glitter eye shadow, Mads Mikkelson is wasted as a one-dimensional nasty with unclear motives, identikit henchmen and a boring plan.

But it looks so, so beautiful. Weird and frequently wonderful, "Doctor Strange" is one of the best-looking films you'll ever see.

"Doctor Strange" is now in cinemas around the world. The exclusive artwork for this article is by Christian Ward, the seriously psychadelic artist behind "Ody-C" and various Marvel covers.

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