There’s a famous verse in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, that goes like this — Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!” Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The big screen has long had a love affair with strange and fantastical things both on earth and in the heavens. Arriving this month are the three big-budget productions reviewed here. Next month comes The Space Between Us, about the first human born on Mars, and Passengers, involving a spaceship to another planet; not to mention another episode in the Star Wars saga.
First up, director and co-writer Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange http://marvel.com/doctorstrange), another adaptation from the Marvel Studios gallery of comic book superheroes, the box-office success of which spells future franchise sequels. An opening confrontation between beings with supernatural powers lets us know from the get-go that forces of light and darkness are in play. The scene shifts to a hospital where hotshot neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) practices life-saving arts. He’s also an arrogant smart aleck who lands in intensive care after crashing his sports car. He makes a partial recovery helped by sometime lover and fellow physician Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) but cannot accept that his shattered hands won’t heal enough to permit a return to normalcy, much less performing delicate brain operations.
From a man who has experienced a miraculous cure Strange learns of a mysterious Himalayan sanctuary and journeys to Kathmandu to find it. The hooded robed figure who rescues him from a mugging turns out to be Mordor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a sort of jedi knight who leads him to the “Ancient One” (a strikingly bald, pale Tilda Swinton), the “supreme sorcerer” and master practitioner of the mystical arts. She makes short work of his materialist skepticism. He becomes her student so that he too may discover his spectral supernatural self and exercise mind over matter-bending energies that include transporting oneself through time and space in an infinity of universes. Of course all is not well in this “multiverse,” setting up a fateful struggle with a rogue ex-student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his disciples who have allied themselves with the “dark dimension” and Dormammu, its lord of everlasting torment.
Revelations follow as battles ensue for the three “sanctums” of New York, London and Tokyo. Strange needs saving a second time while earth is in peril. But, armed with the “eye of agamotto” and “cloak of levitation,” the doctor cum goateed sorcerer’s apprentice in a red cape rises to the occasion. A mid-credits appearance by a character from the Avengers hints at what’s to come.
Fans of the sci-fi superhero genre will probably be reasonably satisfied. Minor controversy has arisen over the curious casting of Swinton as the Ancient One, given a female Celtic origin in contrast to the male Asian figure of the comic series. Not that it matters much. Beyond special-effects spectacle don’t expect deeper magic here.
For depth of meaning from another world to this one the movie to watch is Arrival (http://www.arrivalmovie.com/) from Québécois Denis Villeneuve who continues his rise in the ranks of major Hollywood directors. (He’s currently shooting Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic.) Adapted from “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, it begins with quiet scenes from tender to tragic between a mother and daughter. Is this prologue or epilogue?
The mother is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor whose skills as a translator have been sought by U.S. military intelligence. When giant pod-like UFOs land in a dozen locations around the globe including one in Montana (although shot in the Montreal area, none in Canada), she’s approached by a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), and along with an ace theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), given the most challenging assignment yet — decode any alien communications to discover their purpose.
With the arrival causing suspicion and panicked reactions, the Montana site becomes a military camp. Elaborate precautions are taken as, protected by bulky orange radiation suits, Louise and Ian with army escorts approach the immense grey shell and are able to ascend its low-gravity interior until reaching a transparent wall. Beyond that several dark squid-like creatures with seven tentacles appear wreathed in a wispy fog, making strange low sounds. In response to basic word prompts from Louise, these heptapods extrude an inky form of circular symbols. Nicknaming the aliens Abbott and Costello, Louise and Ian team up, overcoming their fears by shedding their suits, concentrating on interpreting the visitors’ intentions.
Their efforts take place in an atmosphere of escalating global crisis in which communications break down between the affected countries that include China and Russia. As all this is occurring Louise has visionary flashes of life with her daughter. What do they mean? Then, as the pods lift off a short distance, hovering above their landing spots, and the prospect of military action looms, Louise risks taking extraordinary action to prevent it. She is convinced the strangers pose no invading threat; rather their appearance offers a gift from another time and space.
Life, too, is a gift and a risk worth taking, even when we know how the story ends. Villeneuve gives this speculative fiction a profoundly human and one-world sensibility that elevates it to another level. As observed by Maddie Crum, culture writer for The Huffington Post, Arrival is “a movie that’s ultimately about seeking to understand values and perspectives that look alien to us.”
Fear of the alien and unknown is also a subtext of the latest flight of imagination from J.K Rowling. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (http://www.fantasticbeasts.com/), written by Rowling and directed by David Yates who helmed the last four Harry Potters, there’s no need to leave the world to go out of it.
The retro setting is 1926 New York where a wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives from the Old World carrying a briefcase containing a menagerie of magical creatures. A magizoologist devoted to their protection, he finds himself in a time of intolerance when fears are being spread by a “new Salem army” led by an anti-magic zealot, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and America’s secretive “Magical Congress” imposes rules to prevent exposure. Strange creatures manage to escape Newt’s magic case and matters spin out of control when it gets mistakenly switched with a similar one belonging to a hapless aspiring baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). The unsuspecting “No-Maj” (no-magic human, Yankee-speak for “muggle”) gets swept along on a wild ride.
Newt finds an ally in Tina (Katherine Waterston), an out-of-favour “auror” (a Potter term for a kind of magic police officer and investigator) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who beguiles Jacob. But they also come up against the darker designs of a powerful auror, Percival (Colin Farrell), who is using a troubled boy, Credence (Ezra Miller), from Barebone’s brood. A subplot involves a powerful Trump-like New York publishing tycoon (John Voight) whose senator son has presidential ambitions.
As Newt and friends try to safeguard and put a lid on the escaped fantastic beasts, the wizarding world erupts in conflict, unleashing a destructive “Obscurus” and conjuring the form of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (a cameo appearance by Johnny Depp). Although the human world is “obliviated” back to a memory-erasing normal from this mayhem by a drenching November rain, such events portend showdowns to come.
The tangle of characters, storylines and ever stranger creatures gets a bit much to sort out. But with four more films expected in the franchise, perhaps they will become as familiar as those of the Potter universe. Visually there are special effects galore.
Underneath all the spectacle lies a strangely disturbing vision — of threats from fearful No-Maj reaction (one comment describes humans as “the most vicious creatures in the universe”) and the spectre of magic being put to bad ends. Like Harry, Newt is going to need all the help he can get.