MOVIE REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time




In this movie critic and educator’s opinion, Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 Newberry Medal-winning children’s literature novel A Wrinkle in Time remains unfilmable, even after its newest blockbuster treatment from Disney.  It’s not because of special effects. Today’s digital artists can create just about anything imaginable and Ava DuVernay’s film presents plenty of marvelous razzle-dazzle.  It’s not about the teenage messages and character themes. Those are universal truths enough to be overused tropes at this point 56 years later.

It’s about the depth necessary to combine those two elements together, the visual and the thematic, to fittingly unpack and present the greater influence and essence of the science fiction created by L’Engle.  Taking the full theological route possible from A Wrinkle in Time would be too strong mentally and too trippy visually for most of today’s audiences.  By contrast, skimping on those expressions in favor of softer and attractive commercial cuteness sanitizes what makes the novel a subversive and revered classic.  What you’re getting today in 2018 is a noble attempt at the core of the former with many caveats and concessions made for the latter.

Frozen Oscar winner Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, a fellow screenwriter who cracked an equally radiant children’s novel in Bridge to Terabithia 11 years ago, crafted the bridges to bring the teen troubles and transcendent magic of 1962 to the modern setting of today.  Meg Murry (Storm Reid of Sleight and 12 Years a Slave) is a loner teenager who is self-conscious about her talents and looks, a feeling not helped by being the target of bullying and teasing from her flashier classmates.  Four years ago, her brilliant, loving, and mildly crazy-talking astrophysicist father Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) disappeared after a supposed breakthrough discovery on interdimensional space travel he partnered with his wife Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  She stalwartly remains behind to care for Meg and her gifted brother Charles Wallace (newcomer Deric McCabe). All continue to carry hope for Alex’s return, against the prevailing public opinion and perception.

Clues to a rumored universe beyond Earth begin to visit Charles Wallace, Meg, and her school friend Calvin (Levi Miller from Pan) in the form of three immortal otherworldly visitors.  Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) is a plucky go-getter and guide.  Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) offers advice in a linguistic stream of cultural quotations and popular lyrics.  Lastly, the towering Mrs. Which (the headlining Oprah Winfrey) is the sage encourager and explainer of all things.  Each recruited Charles Wallace for his extraordinary extrasensory intelligence only for him to insist that his sister Meg is the true strength and key.  More importantly, the three ageless figures reveal Dr. Alex is alive, setting off a rescue mission for the good father, and eventually the entire universe, from the Black Thing and the IT, the controlling embodiments of ultimate evil plaguing the cosmos.

This colossal springboard from the family film of teen issues to the epic intergalactic adventure A Wrinkle in Time desires to be is more than a little haphazard.  Even with a few choice moments to breathe and soak in the wonder, the surging initiative between set pieces and narrative sequences is quite frenetic (and it shows in the editing), especially when glammed up with garish artistic flair, from the costumes to the CGI creations.  Events are compressed for time, making the entire flow feel detrimentally rushed. Also, the constant need to disperse exposition meant to stand for moments of gravitas and portended peril come across instead as over-obvious one moment and straining with vagueness the next. The point of all the macabre may be perplexing to the uninformed non-readers of the book.  At the same time, devoted fans will be disconnected by the diminished and over-refined scope they see and feel.

Arguably the largest missing components that weakens the film’s impact are the many layers of religious dogma sewn into the source novel.  The allegories, symbolism, and theories fleshed out in L’Engle’s book are mostly ignored or unexplored to their fullest potential. That’s the missing oomph to the core that elevates this tale from fancy to profound.  A Wrinkle in Time is a film that probably needed to stretch its world-building into a richly-detailed TV mini-series with a step up in maturity (think more A Monster Calls or even The Lord of the Rings) to tackle the highbrow content properly.  This did not need to zip like a 109-minute roller coaster for the family crowd to sell merchandise.

Those firm criticisms aside, where Ava DuVernay’s film flourishingly succeeds is with relatable themes and emotional humanity.  Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Beauty and the Beast) composes a steady stream of uniques zooms, tight shots, and unfocused fades in moments of importance, some still and some kinetic, that create an intimacy towards the strong human subject within the surrounding spectacle.  The actors take that closeness, draw empathy, and emote wonderfully. Storm Reid shows zero pretenses to champion palpable (and hopefully contagious) girl empowerment. Chris Pine, coming off a heroically heart-stealing role in Wonder Woman, pulls off the same coup, this time evoking the daddy feels to great effect.

The director herself stresses embracing joy over cynicism with A Wrinkle in Time, and the moral takeaways are very virtuous.  Shifting gears from the highly-charged Selma and 13th, the two-time Academy Award nominee delivered a worthy film working in a new genre with the largest budget ever given to a black woman.  The invitation for her leadership was the first step of success and the film’s able completion was the second. The test now will be staying power and acceptance from audiences.  No matter what, Ava DuVernay’s command and will to create a message film, even in the guise of tentpole, is unquestioned. That goal was never going to fail, even if the film’s fate was.

LESSON #1: BEING ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE-- The film states that “we are all miracles.”  Similar to the lofty “star-stuff” thinking of Carl Sagan or the low-end “I am one with the universe” mantra from Beverly Hills Ninja, atoms and molecules as old as time align in a completely special and singular way to create every person and living thing, each with a role in the cosmos.  Scaling that down to A Wrinkle in Time, it’s about Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin using their unique talents for a greater good in their local universe, let alone the big one in the stars.  To get to this point, you need an equal dose of the second lesson.

LESSON #2: BEING ONE WITH YOURSELF-- Meg is the main protagonist and her progression on the path towards self-confidence is what this story is all about when you remove the sci-fi elements.  The topics of loss and social conformity are two of the obstacles to Meg seeing her potential greatness. At one point, someone tells her, “It’s OK to fear the answers, but you can’t avoid them.”  Meg must accept the things she cannot change, but then accept the abilities she has to do something about the things she can. Love over evil is the truest triumph for her self-image.