A WRINKLE IN TIME: Attack Of The 50-Foot Oprah

This review contains spoilers for A Wrinkle in Time. 

An ambitious, well-meaning failure, A Wrinkle in Time is destined to be a movie that plays at hip, fun rep house screenings in a decade or so, when the kids who see it today at 9 or 10 grow up with a post-ironic love for its muddled story and lovely visuals.

Based on the classic novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time sends three kids – Meg Murry, Calvin and Charles Wallace – careening across the universe in search of a missing father and in an effort to stop a great darkness growing in reality’s soul. The solution? Not battle or violence, but rather “Chicken Soup For the Soul” level bromides that, while not untrue, have all the weight of rolled-up, unused yoga mats.

A Wrinkle in Time presents an interesting dilemma for the modern film critic. From its inception the film has been touted as a beacon of diversity; from the hiring of Ava Duvernay, director of Selma, through the decision to make the Murry family biracial, this has been one of those Trump-era movies that wanted to show us hope. And Duvernay’s film leans hard in that direction, talking a lot about love and the power of love, and it’s hard to take issue with all of that. In fact, I try to live my daily life by many of the principles this film espouses.

But the movie is, as a movie, not very good. It’s not quite terrible, although there are moments that get real close. It’s just not good, and it’s not engaging, and one of the kid actors is absolutely terrible. So how do you write about a movie like this, a movie with all the best intentions, a movie that is saying the things we want a movie to say in these times, and that shows the faces we want a movie to show… but that isn’t all that good? That’s hard to recommend on its own merits as a movie?

You just have to be honest, I guess. You have to give a movie with these ambitions the respect of engaging with it on the same level you would engage with any other film. And you have to look at what doesn’t work in the movie and try to understand why; this isn’t one of those movies that calls for a snarky take-down, but rather a compassionate post-mortem. How did this film end up like this?

One thing that’s important to note: it’s not because of diversity. The worst actor in the whole thing, Levi Miller, is the white kid. Storm Reid, who plays Meg, is quite fantastic, playing a girl who is a little bit sour and angry but never allowing her sourness to taint the film’s attempts at wonder. That’s not easy, especially for a child actor.

A Wrinkle in Time seems to suffer from a bad screenplay (written by Jennifer Lee) and perhaps some editing room wonkiness. Lee’s script never allows the film to be properly grounded in the real world; halfway through the movie we see how The It, the great darkness that threatens all, is impacting the mindstates of individuals on Earth. Structurally this would have worked better if we had been introduced to those mindstates before the kids began their journey across the cosmos, instead it becomes yet another info dump in a script marked by characters traveling from place to place in order to give new info dumps.

The dialogue is also… unique. I’m not sure if Lee is transcribing L’Engle’s 1962 teen dialogue directly, but when Calvin asks “Have I lost my senses?” when he’s wondering if he’s gone crazy you have to ask how those words ended up in a teen’s mouth in 2018. But most of the dialogue is given over to info dumps, few of which actually add up to anything. A Wrinkle in Time the book is a complex and often weird science fantasy novel; A Wrinkle in Time the movie is the kind of film that has someone say “quantum entanglement” a few times and expects you to just go with the flow, defeated by the jargon. There’s also math on blackboards, which is intended to make you think there’s something profound being said that you’re perhaps too slow to catch.

All of this is in the framework of a movie that feels edited to within an inch of its life. The whole thing is cluttered; in the first act Duvernay fills her frame to distraction – either everybody is shot in the kind of close-up that keeps half their head out of the frame or there is some foreground stuff filling space that has nothing to do with the action in frame. Some of that clears up later in the film, as the movie becomes more CGI-oriented (and thus more pre-vizzed), but it makes the opening of the movie almost uncomfortable to sit through. This worked in Selma, where the intensity was vital to creating the mood; I’m not sure it works when Mrs. Whatsit shows up in the Murry’s living room to sprinkle some weirdness on the proceedings.

There are wonderful moments. The kids flying on the back of Mrs. Whatsit after she transforms into a lettuce creature is delightful. There’s lots of stuff that is pretty campy – this is the stuff that will play big in fifteen years at rep screenings – and that is very silly but played in a straight way. Oprah, playing Mrs. Which, spends half the movie standing at 50 feet tall, and looks absolutely ridiculous. There’s a moment where Charles Wallace does a flyby on Oprah’s far too big head and touches her cheek and I was waiting to see if the enormous Oprah would just eat him up like the giants of fairy tales. When the kids get to Camazotz, homeworld of The It, there’s a great scene that shows the horrors of conformity, a big theme of L’Engle’s original novel.

But that scene also betrays how the movie doesn’t work. In the novel the conformity is central, and Meg’s dad, Dr. Murry, is held prisoner because he won’t conform. That’s out of the movie; what we get instead is a scene that pokes fun at suburbia, but that has nothing else to say. The kids in the movie seem to live in South Los Angeles, which is suburban-like, but not suburbia (especially not as presented in this scene). There’s no discussion of totalitarian mindsets or security states. It’s just a cool moment that looks great and is creepy but is ultimately detached from any and all other meaning.

I think some of that comes from a transformation of the book’s themes. L’Engle was writing from a Christian perspective about the nature of good and evil, and her view of evil was revolutionary in young adult lit at the time – it was about being conformist and unthinking. She challenged preconceived notions (the book itself was controversial at the time because of how she wove Christianity into this weird science web, reimagining Christ not as just the Messiah but one of many Warriors of Light against The It), and her story is very much about being freethinking, not falling into rigid traps of the mind. The movie, on the other hand, has very modern self-empowerment themes (which I think are ultimately destructive and rooted in capitalist attempts to delude us into being self-driven consumption machines, but whatever, a lot of people feel very terribly about themselves and I can’t begrudge them finding some spark of hope within). It throws around ‘love’ a lot without really defining it or examining it; the script just trots ‘love’ out the way Star Wars trots out ‘hyperspace.’

This treatment of love – as a worn cliche and storypoint, not as a lived experience – renders the end of the movie emotionally sterile. We get a lot of crying and “I love you, Charles Wallace!” but none of it is built on a solid foundation. The movie has been cut to the bone, and we ran through so many sequences to get to the ending that none of the big emotional beats land. They sort of work – it’s 2018 and scores can do amazing manipulative things, as can editing and shot choice – but they don’t LAND. The movie’s emotional climax is rote. You know when people complain about the end of a Marvel movie being nothing but CGI guys beating up on one another and you know who will win? It’s like that, but with love instead of CGI violence.

By reducing spiritual concepts to slogans, A Wrinkle in Time does a disservice to its own messaging. We distrust spiritual concepts of love and forgiveness because they seem too simple, but it’s their simplicity that makes them hard to master. Meditating is just sitting quiet, right? That’s simple. Try doing it for an hour. Or two. Or all day. It’s hard as hell, despite being simple. So is giving love, and when we reduce the powerful struggle to love down to a phrase or two we’re not honoring how hard it is and how brave those who love truly are. We turn the most difficult, brutal battle we can imagine into some Jiminy Cricket “think good thoughts” shit. And while “think good thoughts” is for sure part of the work you do to be more loving, it’s like telling someone who wants to lose weight “eat fewer calories.” Yes, it works. Yes, it’s simple. But it’s also VERY HARD.

The movie takes a lot of liberties with the book (why are there no centaurs in this movie, when they’re perhaps the most famous imagery associated with the novel??), but it sticks to the broad outline, and so at the end Meg has to rescue Charles Wallace from The It. And just as in the book, Dr. Murry opts to leave Charles Wallace behind in order to save Meg and Calvin. In the book this is something Meg must confront – they traveled the universe to find this guy and then he left his son behind! But for Meg in the book it’s a learning moment – she has to learn that her parents cannot do for her. In the movie everybody just forgets it. His choice, by the way, is doubly weird in the movie as Charles Wallace is adopted in the film (I’m not sure why that choice was made) – Dr. Murry opting to abandon his adopted child is a very very bad look. And no one brings it up.

I think that choice sums up the film’s problems. Nothing is explored. The emotions aren’t explored. The worlds aren’t explored. The ideas aren’t explored. At times A Wrinkle In Time feels less like an adaptation of a book and more like an adaptation of a Wikipedia summary. There are spectacular visual moments, and there is true high weirdness at the edges, but none of it is given the time or depth necessary to maintain meaning.

In the end A Wrinkle in Time falls prey to the most standard blockbuster problem: a bad script. I appreciate this film for its ambition, and I know its heart is in the right place, but none of that matters if the initial blueprint can’t support all that ambition and heart.