Kamar-Taj offers no direct flights. It’s by way of a trek and then again that feeling of thirst and wondering where the toilets are. You’ll always find something to read no matter where you are on Earth. (Glyphs are glyphs.) Even if it means not being able to talk with the locals.
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) continues the tradition of sprouting another Caucasian with an accent into a role originally of an Asian. There but the bug eyes we go accepting the standard regime and washing out the palette. A cast into the winds of what continues the through line on the question of what is identity and what is truth in the matter of a world spun in a kaleidoscopic psychedelia. Not by the drugs in the tea but by stepping back over a fallen chair and seeing alternate and mirror dimensions which vibrate on infinite wisdoms.
One where Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) happens to spend the entire journey on a path from hubris to humility and picking up a new profession where matters of money are apparently no longer a concern. We’re now in that utopian future were the pursuit of knowledge itself drives society instead of the chase for a bank account that won’t be wiped out when you have to pay for a kidney still wet and dripping of bathtub ice.
Doctor Strange asks us to consider what is pride and what is self-worth and how much of it do we allow to limit true personal growth. The whole first act is about wallowing in a cocoon of being unable to see actual challenges in favour of grabbing easy glory waiting at the end of a scalpel. Who are we but the definition of what we believe to be our profession and the skills poured into that rank? If we don’t stand back and see the world around us and our feeble place in it, nobody.
As much as it is a movie about taking ownership of one’s identity and understanding that life can sometimes change around you before you’re ready to, it’s also a piece on knowledge. Fundamentally, the importance and power of libraries. It’s no mistake that the opening scene is about the simple act of checking out a book. The events therein naturally play out all the way toward the last act. Libraries and their catalogues are pivotal to a well-run society. One of the foundations of growth lies in the opportunities between the aisles and checked-in books.
When books are overdue or damaged the fall and breakdown of the world is only inevitable. The main villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), is as bland as most super hero foils, and is reflective of the boiling aftermath of the real world. Much like that old man slowly tearing out pages from the communal newspaper (while his wife reads interference) as if they don’t think anyone else can hear them does about the same amount of damage to the public sphere and are as throwaway. Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gets some hits in with a start to his origin story, the threadbare nature of that not wanting to overcome that main Benedict on screen.
The amount of time spent surrounded by books is no mistake. It is there that decades upon centuries of knowledge, wisdom and the depth of humanity await. There is no magic or sorcery involved in picking up a book or two and reading. The mind expands into parallel universes and time locks when you step through the pages. There isn’t much that stands in the way of logic or rules unbroken.
Doubling on the importance of libraries to the fabric of society is what Wong (Benedict Wong) does to the narrative. No mere sidekick to Strange, Wong is now the head librarian, among other standings in the training grounds, and another store of wisdom and reserve. A vital role as both teacher and protector of the powerful constructs that pour out in inked tomes.
Doctor Strange, as trippy and splendid the visuals, as dashing the asides and jokes, is clear in its message that certain defeats are a given without the embrace of knowledge. That the unending chasm that learning unfolds unto itself is what makes for some kind of progress in the world, even if that information puts you in doubt of what has come before.
The spinning nausea lasting minutes after the end credits, with a twisting gut ready to vomit for distance, may also be a side-effect of being in the front row of an assigned-seat cinema (where kick into flatbacks) that needs to take out that front row because we’re working in the economy class now.
Reviewed on Friday, 25 November 2016