Doctor Strange in Dolby Cinema and IMAX Laser 3D

As anyone who reads my movie reviews knows, I’m a big fan of Dolby Cinema, which presents movies graded in Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) with Dolby Atmos immersive soundtracks. It’s the best cinema experience available today. But IMAX Laser theaters—that is, IMAX theaters with laser-illuminated projectors—are a close second, with higher peak brightness and lower black levels than any conventional cinema as well as a 12.1-channel sound system with four overhead speakers.

Marvel’s newest superhero movie, Doctor Strange, is currently playing in both venues, with only one major difference: IMAX is showing it in 3D, while the Dolby Cinemas—those in the US, anyway—are showing it in 2D. Normally, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Dolby Cinema in 2D over IMAX in 3D, but in this particular case, I wasn’t so sure. Many of the reviews mention how psychedelic the movie is, and from what I’ve seen in the commercials, that’s no understatement. So I thought that 3D might serve it especially well.

In fact, I decided to watch it in both venues to compare the experiences. Unfortunately, IMAX Laser 3D uses a technique called “spectrum separation” or “6P” (6-primary), which is similar to Dolby 3D. I hate this type of 3D because the reflections between the inner surface of the 3D glasses and the outer surface of my prescription glasses cause ghost images and a milky fog around the screen. Nevertheless, I wanted to conduct a comparative analysis of the two presentations. (FYI, non-laser IMAX theaters use polarized 3D, which is much better than 6P, but it’s not as bright.)

First, the movie itself. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing a completely credible American accent) is a brilliant neurosurgeon whose ego and arrogance know no bounds. After a horrific car accident—caused by his inattention to the road while examining some medical scans—he suffers tremendous nerve damage that cripples his hands. The most advanced Western medical science fails to restore his ability to perform delicate operations, at which point Strange learns of Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who miraculously recovered from a severed spinal cord by embracing the mystic arts. So Strange turns to metaphysics and becomes initiated into a world much larger than the reality we all take for granted.

In Nepal, he finds Pangborn’s teacher, a sorceress called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), whose disciples include Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Another disciple, Kaecilious (Mads Mikkelsen), has been seduced by the Dark Dimension (sound familiar?) and intends to allow it into our world. Can Doctor Strange and his comrades thwart Kaecilious’ evil plan? Can he find some humility along the way?

I really enjoyed this superhero outing, which offers a surprisingly good plot with shades of Harry Potter and The Matrix. Like most Marvel movies, it has plenty of humor and doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it also deals with some pretty profound ideas, such as materialism—the philosophy that reality consists only of matter and energy that we can measure—and mysticism, which accepts the reality of unseen dimensions and an infinitude of universes. Then there’s the “ends justify the means” subplot that blurs the line between the good guys and bad guys. The cape shtick is a bit silly, but all in all, it’s a perfect popcorn movie buttered with a bit of intellectual stimulation.

As expected, the Dolby Cinema HDR presentation is gorgeous, with deep blacks, bright highlights, beautiful colors, and great shadow detail. As The Ancient One and Kaecilious bend space and time, cityscapes fold upon themselves in an effect reminiscent of the movie Inception. But it goes much further here, creating a kaleidoscopic feast for the eyes. Doctor Strange co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko are said to be teetotalers, but I’d bet that some of those involved in bringing these scenes to the screen are personally familiar with hallucinogens of one sort or another.

Likewise, the Atmos soundtrack is superb, especially during the space-bending and otherworldly scenes, with sound flying all around the room. I love a good Atmos mix, which puts me in the thick of the action even more than the visuals.

The next night, I went to the TCL Chinese Imax Laser theater in Hollywood, CA. In that venue, the movie was not only presented in 3D, it also switched aspect ratios between 2.39:1 to 1.9:1, filling the full height of the screen during the space-bending and otherworldly scenes. Combined with 3D, this greatly increased the impact of those scenes. However, that impact was mitigated by the distracting fog and ghost images I see with 6P 3D. Also, the black level was nowhere near as deep as it was in the Dolby Vision presentation, though the image was brighter than conventional-cinema 3D.

I was sitting a bit too far back to be in an optimum position for the 12.1-channel sound system, though I was in a great spot for seeing the full 1.9:1 image. Still, I could certainly hear things moving around, including overhead. And interestingly, the dialog intelligibility was somewhat better than it was in the Dolby Cinema.

Speaking of sound, the levels were surprisingly reasonable, especially for such an action-packed blockbuster. I measured the levels in both venues, and they were nearly identical:

In the Dolby Cinema, Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie plus trailers) = 94.6 dBZ (flat), 80.5 dBA, 92.8 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 117.6 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 96.6 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 78.1 dBZ.

In the IMAX theater, Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie plus trailers) = 94.4 dBZ (flat), 80.7 dBA, 93.0 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 120.1 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 96.8 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 79.1 dBZ.

As much as I enjoyed the larger image and 3D in IMAX, the distracting artifacts of 6P 3D counteracted that advantage for me. I imagine it would look much better in a non-laser IMAX theater, though quite a bit dimmer. If you don’t have a problem with 6P 3D, I definitely recommend seeing this movie in an IMAX Laser theater; otherwise, a non-laser IMAX theater will still give you the same effects at lower light levels (and only conventional surround sound). On the other hand, if you simply don’t enjoy 3D, the Dolby Cinema presentation is excellent; for a list of Dolby cinema locations, click here. In any event, Doctor Strange is a highly enjoyable popcorn movie that deserves the kudos it’s getting. And be sure to stick around through the end credits for a sneak peek at two possible sequels.