Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writers: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell
A Wrinkle in Time is a noble, well-intentioned film with a lot to root for. It marks the first instance of a female African-American director helming a $100 million fantasy blockbuster, it boasts a richly diverse cast, and its central message is about love and acceptance of yourselves and others. Good intentions however do not a great film make, and those intentions can even work against the film when they take precedence over story, character, sensation, and everything else that makes for great cinema. So strong is this film’s desire to celebrate liberalism and to be inspirational that it cannot help but lead its viewers by the hand at every turn and ensure that none of the morals get lost on them. The film is quite clearly targeted at a young audience of 6 to 12 year olds and isn’t embarrassed about it (nor should it be), yet it doesn’t seem to trust them enough to rely on their own imaginations and to learn the lessons through inference. The movie spoon-feeds us its rhetoric so forcefully that its message of empowerment and affirmation loses all power and meaning, making for an unfulfilling watch.
The film tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid), an introverted teenage girl with low self-esteem. She possesses a curious, inquisitive mind and an unfathomable fascination with the world around her that she shares with her scientist father Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine), who disappeared without a trace four years ago. Since then Meg has lived a withdrawn and lonely life; she underperforms at school, has no friends to speak of, and she lashes out when attacked by her bully Veronica (Rowan Blanchard). While Meg and her mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) continue to mourn their loss, her prodigious, six-year-old adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), relentless in his optimism, provides a source of joy and comfort for them both. These early scenes are the most affective in the whole movie as we get a strong sense of the affection that Meg shares with her family and of her adolescent troubles.
Meg soon learns that his father is still alive and that he has been lost in space ever since solving the mystery of the tesseract, a mode of travel that can cross dimensions. She, Charles Wallace, and would-be boyfriend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) are invited to help search for him by three celestial beings. These are Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a scatter-brained, unearthly woman who hasn’t quite mastered keeping her thoughts to herself, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in quotations attributed to such great thinkers and artists of the world as Shakespeare, Buddha, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who towers over everybody else and looks as regal as a deity played by Oprah ought to look. She reveals that Meg’s father is trapped on the planet Camazotz, home of the dark force known as the IT, and that it is up to Meg to find and rescue him in a journey across time and space.
The adventure that follows however doesn’t feel very adventurous. Meg doesn’t so much set out on a quest as she does get carried along one (by a flying lettuce creature no less), get told what to do, and be reminded at every turn about how special and extraordinary she is. Even when Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must make it on their own in the third act, the conclusion still feels far too easy considering the universe-shaking, existence-threatening stakes that were set up. It would be like if Frodo simply flew to Mordor on the back of an eagle with Sam and Gandalf showering him with praise and support the whole way and then ultimately defeated Sauron by learning to love himself. I get that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t trying to be The Lord of the Rings, but the point is that in order for a story with a quest to feel like an adventure, a journey with obstacles and trials has to actually take place. There is no sense of urgency propelling them from place to place and no tension in the tasks they must complete. The movie is instead so focused on validating Meg as a heroine and making sure that the children who relate to her are empowered by her victory that it neglects to make the journey itself all that interesting.
If the intention was for Meg to be a passive participant in a fantastical voyage like Alice or Dorothy that would be one thing, but here she is built up to be a chosen one upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. “Be a warrior”, says Mrs. Which, obviously not intended in a literal Joan of Arc sense but rather in an emotional sense, yet still a role that requires Meg to be more assertive and active than she’s allowed to be. The film doesn’t seem to trust that Meg’s positive qualities will make themselves evident to the viewer if displayed through actions and instead must assure us whenever possible that she is a great person capable of great things. Even when her wits and scientific know-how actually help to get them out of a spot when they’re caught up in a twister, the movie still has to stop for a second so that Calvin can remark on how incredible Meg is. Reid for her part delivers a remarkably confident performance and does a terrific job of showcasing Meg as the complex and flawed character that she is. I wish this film showed half as much confidence in depicting her arc.
What’s equally as disheartening is that the film’s visuals and style are shockingly weak given what DuVernay has proven herself capable of crafting as a director with films like Selma. There are some neat looking visuals such as the designs of the three Mrs. Ws and the orange corridor where Dr. Murray is trapped, but then there are others that just look bland and unoriginal. The dark forest where the kids wind up upon reaching Camazotz looks like any other foreboding forest you’ve ever seen. The use of CGI in the cave in the scene with the balancing stones and with the aforementioned flying lettuce creature is so fake looking that they could’ve been lifted straight out of a Disney Channel TV Movie. Even when we get a nice-looking setting like on the planet with the resplendent grass, shimmering lake, and colourful flowers, we don’t get to appreciate them much because DuVernay makes continuous use of tightly framed medium and close-up shots with seldom an establishing shot. The staging of each scene is often so awkward that it almost seems like some of the performers are acting in different films. It was only in the creepy, nightmarish neighbourhood scene where we see a row of children bouncing their basketballs in unison that I was reminded of what a great director DuVernay can actually be.
I really did want to like this film because I like what it’s trying to be. I like the message that it wants to convey, I like that it takes chances and risks and tries to do something a little different, and I like cast and crew involved. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are still fun to watch even in their roles as glorified exposition spouters, Pine continues to prove himself the most versatile of the Hollywood Chrises, and Reid is a star in the making. There’s even a fun Zach Galifianakis cameo to enjoy. I did find Charles Wallace pretty insufferable, but a lot of people seem to like him so maybe that’s just me. A Wrinkle in Time however is simply not a good film. The story is incoherent and not compelling, there isn’t nearly enough style to make up for the lack of substance, and the liberal ‘believe in yourself’ rhetoric is so constant, generic, and is hammered in so much that the ultimate lesson loses whatever power it might have had in the original L’Engle novel (which I have not read). I suppose the film is fun enough that it might work alright for its target audience, especially those who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented on screen, and maybe for them that’ll be enough. All that I, a 25-year-old white guy, can really say is that it didn’t work for me.