DOCTOR STRANGE: A time-bending, mind-tripping Marvel superhero tale that is endlessly fascinating to watch, it's loads of fun if you keep its Eastern mystic aspects in perspective. YES.
HACKSAW RIDGE: Mel Gibson's comeback film after a decade in the Hollywood doghouse is one of the year's best, mixing romance, heroism and pacifist ideals. Be warned its battle footage is extremely graphic, but for those who can stomach it, it's definitely a YES.
Not to get all trippy on everyone, but I love to find the connections between things, whether as a fan (if not necessarily a believer) of conspiracy theories, a student of human nature, or as a film critic. When I get the chance to see more than one big movie a week, it’s fun to see if there’s a way in which even the most disparate films come together.
This week’s movies, the Marvel superhero head-trip “Doctor Strange” and the straightforward yet emotionally powerful true-life epic “Hacksaw Ridge,” are two films that seems worlds apart on the surface yet share the same pacifist heart underneath. Since “Strange” is the wider release for now, with “Ridge” playing in just a few theatres this weekend before expanding here next week, we’ll lead with it.
“Strange” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character, Dr. Stephen Strange, a mega-genius master surgeon who has a cocky attitude about every aspect of his life, expressed through withering sarcasm. When he suffers a horrific car crash while offering surgical advice while speeding on a winding road, he wakes up to find that his hands are shattered and he may never conduct his work again.
His frustration and anger drives away Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a fellow doctor and former paramour who tries to convince him there are other ways to serve the world. Hearing about another shattered man who was mysteriously made whole again after visiting a guru in Nepal, Dr. Strange spends his last dime to get there, and enters a weird school of mystic arts and Eastern spiritualism under the tutelage of a guru known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her sidekick, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Dr. Strange soon learns that a former student of his guru, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), got greedy in his quest for the knowledge needed to become immortal. He stole a key spell from her private library that enables him to both pass through time loops between different eras of Hong Kong, London and New York, wreaking havoc on his own as well as preparing the way for an evil being from another universe to come and destroy mankind – and of course, Dr. Strange and his mystical masters have to learn how to save the day.
“Strange” is an effects-filled wonder to behold, creating a universe that follows the playbook of “The Matrix” and Matt Damon’s trippy yet flawed “The Adjustment Bureau” in creating a unique world where characters could be on Mount Everest in one moment and the heart of a desert in the next. It also emulates those movies in having something deeper to say about the meaning of life and our perceptions of it – a factor that was born of the 1960s hippie-dippie era in which the original comic was created. Underlying it all is a reluctant hero who feels that killing anyone, even an evil henchman of the villain, is a violation of his sworn oath as a physician to do no harm to others, to save lives rather than take them.
Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson was an interesting choice to helm this movie, since he’s built a successful career as a master of horror films, such as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” that have a strong spiritual underpinning. He’s clearly thought deeply about these matters, and the extra depth that brings – alongside the terrific cast of offbeat actors including Cumberbatch, Swinton and Ejiofor, who normally eschew easy popcorn fare – makes “Strange” a particularly odd and exciting time at the movies.
There is hardly any foul language or profanity in “Strange,” no sex or nudity, and the violence is largely standard action-movie level and definitely bloodless. The main issue for discerning Catholic viewers lies in the fact that Doctor Strange is learning magic and Eastern mysticism, which are of course in direct contradiction with the Christian perspective on the world we live in. For adults and older teenagers, it is easy enough to distinguish this as fantasy and keep the film’s influence in properly limited perspective, but for children younger than the age suggested by its PG-13 rating, the movie could lead to confusion and build an interest in occultism.
“Hacksaw,” meanwhile, also features an intriguing choice of director, as Mel Gibson uses the film to mark his return to the director’s chair. He’s got Oscar-winning chops, as evidenced by his Best Director win for “Braveheart,” and movingly tells the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-Day Adventist who put himself in a precarious position during World War II by enlisting to become a medic and running afoul of his leaders and peers by refusing to touch a gun since it was against his religion to kill anyone under any circumstances.
The story of how this simple yet affable man stood tall behind his convictions and ultimately became one of America’s greatest war heroes by saving 75 men on the battlefield at Okinawa is alternately grim and inspiring. Gibson adds to his career canon of violent films that show the consequences and meaninglessness of that violence, serving up gruesome imagery of shattered soldiers while focusing on their inner driving spirit and indomitable will to live.
It’s an impressive comeback from an apparently conflicted talent, even though it has some hokey moments in the first half, and he also helps Garfield get another shot at leading-man status after two mediocre “Amazing Spider-Man” movies nearly killed his career. Together, they’ve created a film that serves as a stirring reminder of the true costs of war in a world that’s far too filled with them.
“Hacksaw Ridge” also has barely any foul language, and the filmmakers along the way agreed to edit a greater amount of obscenities from the film since both Gibson and his subject are deeply religious men, and it makes sense to reach out to an audience of believers. The romantic aspects of the story, following Doss’ romance and early days of marriage to his wife, a nurse, are portrayed tastefully with only kissing and then implied sex about to happen on their wedding night.
The war violence, however, is intense and many of the wounds are stomach-churningly gruesome. But considering the topic, that war is such hell it can drive a man to seek pacifism as an ideal at all costs, such footage is necessary.