It’s blockbuster season. To make sure we are well entertained and our wallets are emptied Hollywood brings us its best films of the year, which are often subsequently nominated for awards. Here are two films early out of the gate that you will likely enjoy.
As a rule I’m not into superhero movies, mainly because I find the egregious use of testosterone (and now with Wonder Woman, estrogen) silly and uninteresting. I made an exception for Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch because this doctor is not your ordinary superhero.
When the movie starts Doctor Stephen Strange is a super-successful brain surgeon and that gives him all the latest toys and a fantastic lifestyle, not to mention the company of his favorite nurse and girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams). It also has him hunting for more complex and interesting cases. He is soon brought low by an accident that leaves his memory intact but largely destroys his magical hands that provide the source of his fame and wealth. Stephen is obsessed with getting back his surgical prowess. It looks hopeless until a fellow doctor tells him about the unusual case of a man in a similar condition who succeeded against the odds. Trying to imitate this man’s success, Strange ends up in Katmandu, Nepal and knocking on the door of a nondescript row house. There he hopes to learn these same mystical secrets.
It takes him a while to be taken for a serious pupil. Needless to say Strange is highly motivated and a gifted student. But he finds it hard for his rational mind to accept the mystical powers The Ancient One (a bald and definitely non-Asian Tilda Swinson) says can be projected from the mind. It won’t surprise you (or spoil any plot points) to learn that with her help and the help of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the keeper of the sacred library Wong (Benedict Wong) he succeeds.
Unfortunately, the knowledge in this special library has been pilfered, or at least a key page of it, by the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who is a big believer in chaos theory. He has been battling The Ancient One for control of the earth’s destiny, and his latest stolen acquisition from their library is a serious breach. Fortunately Dr. Strange gains proficiency just in time to be paired with a magical cloak (something of a character in itself) to help The Ancient One fight both a real and ethereal battle with Kaecilius’ forces, with humanity’s future being the prize.
In an age of super special effects, these here are both neat and memorable and complement the plot rather than detract from it. Cumberbatch is now a serious A-List actor and manages to infuse Strange with a captivating personality that is both human and fantastic. Director Scott Derrickson seamlessly pulls all of this together, allowing Strange to be a sort of anti-superhero, a superhero with a human face wrestling with unseen forces to help mankind. I hope there are more Strange movies in the future, because I will be happy to invest more time with this sort of superhero.
3.4 out of 4-stars.
One of the first science fiction films of note, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952) tackled what it would be like if aliens landed on our planet. Sixty-four years later we get Arrival with essentially the same plot. When done right, as in Arrival this plot will both entertain and keep you guessing. What makes Arrival somewhat unique is that it plausibly tackles the topic.
Eight huge egg-like alien spacecraft land (well, more accurately hover) at various spots over the earth and sort of sit there, waiting for humanity to investigate. The United States gets one that lands in Montana. The U.S. military of course is all over it, as are militaries elsewhere in the world, but even so it’s tough going. They have to learn how to communicate with these aliens. You can see them if you get under their ships because every 18 hours whoever is there will get swept into an inside chamber where you can view these octopus-like aliens behind a barrier.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who already happens to have a Top Secret clearance gets the call, in this case from Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Unsurprisingly, Banks is a renowned language expert and has studied how language is learned. It’s a pretty tedious process but with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) the two plod away at the job, overseen by the hovering and mothering military nearby, which sets up a quarantined base camp. Louise does her best, but is not quite at her best. Even before the plot gets going we learn she is a woman haunted by dreams as real as life, but that have never happened to her.
Viewers can take this as a key to a plot that will slowly unfold. Colonel Weber is anxious to make progress because there is something of a race among the countries with these spacecraft. These aliens that they call heptapods are patient but these militaries are not. It all amounts to whether the aliens are friend or foe. If foe they must be destroyed somehow. If friend, they must glean information for their nation’s advantage before another country does.
With science fiction in the theater these days more often to be space operas like Star Wars sequels, this movie turns out to be genuine science fiction. But it’s also a deeply human story, along with a grand mystery and puzzle. These aliens feel like aliens and their writing is sophisticated and seems impenetrable. It’s exhausting work for both Louise and Ian all while Louise wrestles with inner psychological demons and the military works overtime not to use their itchy trigger finger. Meanwhile the Russians and the Chinese cut off communications and soon no one is sharing information anymore.
This one will surprise you in a good and satisfying way and suck you right into its plot. These heptapods are suitably alien, as are their ovoid spacecraft. The mosaic of clues will come together and should leave you more than a little awed, thanks to terrific acting by Adams, Whitaker and Renner and Denis Villeneuve’s deft but understated directing.
3.4 out of 4-points.