I have not read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which is a shame, as I imagine it is a much better work than Ava DuVernay’s film by the same name. Of course, “See Spot Run” would also be a better work than Disney’s latest live-action effort, which manages to be so devoid of merit, personality, and plot that it will be hard to write much about it (other than hurling insults at it, which I have already failed at refraining from). The thing that is truly saddening, however, is that the film has a glimmer not just of interesting thematic exploration, but of virtue and righteousness, which I am certain is only present because it is weaved so intimately within the source material that the director and screenwriters’ inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to comprehend them could not snuff them out entirely.
What I find most interesting about DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time is that it has the exact opposite problem of the last film I reviewed, The Shape of Water. In Del Toro’s film, the craft is excellent, but at its heart lies a perversion of goodness. DuVernay’s probably has a heart as pure as gold, it is just impossible to tell because it was made so poorly. This just turns out to be two sides of the same coin, and A Wrinkle in Time ends up being just as much a waste of time and labor as Shape of Water – two films that are actively bad, but really earnest in believing what they are doing is good.
The film begins by attempting to show a strong father-daughter relationship between a young Meg (Storm Reid) and her dad, Dr. Alex Murray (Chris Pine) through their mutual scientific interests in her father’s at-home physics lab (which looks nothing like an actual physics lab). Jump to four years later and her father has disappeared, leaving Meg, her mother, and adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) in despair. For Meg this translates to a terrible middle school life (her grades have been steadily declining and she always appears exhausted). She is teased by the other girls, but luckily catches the eye of a popular boy, Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller). One night her family is visited by a strange woman, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who seems to know all of them. The next day, Meg, Calvin, and Charles are hanging out in their backyard when three women appear out of thin air: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). They learn that Dr. Murray had figured out how to “tesser,” the verb form of “tesseract” (yes, just like from those other scientifically illiterate Disney-owned films) across the galaxy using only his mind. The Mrs.’s tesser with the three kids to a distant planet that looks a lot like Earth with the saturation turned up. Dr. Murray is obviously not there, but they learn the direction he headed. They then tesser to a rather drab planet where they meet Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) who helps Meg discover where her father is: the It, an evilness that is spreading across the universe, similar to Dormammu in Doctor Strange.
I should warn you, this synopsis makes the film sound a lot more interesting than it actually is. There are certainly some interesting ideas running in the background of this film, particularly in these metaphysical-turned-physical entities that drive the plot (the three Mrs’s and the It), but the film itself spends no time with them. It is briefly explained that the It is what turns people against each other, and the film cuts to scenes of Meg getting teased at school or Calvin’s father reprimanding him for his mediocre grades, but this is never felt. The It offers no sense of fear or danger, but the Mrs’s are portrayed with even less finesse, acting as nothing more than a method of exposition and transportation. I learned from Steven Greydanus’ review that the three Mrs.’s are supposed to be a representation of the Holy Trinity, but you would not know it from watching the film. In fact, Mrs. Which states that they are “part of the universe,” clearly undercutting the spirituality of these characters and, by-and-large, of the film.
Beyond the muddy thematic problems of the film, it still does not succeed. There is no sense of tone. This is not entirely true, as the beginning of the film is at least functional in this respect, with bullying and unrest being something DuVernay had already portrayed with much greater success in Selma, but it is as the film moves towards fantasy – the main reason the audience is there – that things fall apart. We are treated to a rather colorful world, nothing special, but it is passable. The script is filled with some choice lines: “We need warriors who can fight the It,” Mrs. Which tells Meg. Then there’s the cinematography. Shots are framed strangely, there seems to be no understanding of camera movement, and it all adds up to a visual nothingness that the It would be proud of. But the worst offender is the soundtrack, or rather the choice to insert random pop songs into scenes for no rhyme or reason. If George Lucas’ American Graffiti is a masterclass on how to use popular music to tell a story, then this film is a class on how to use it to ruin one.
The end result is a science fantasy with very little understanding of actual science (e.g. quantum entanglement can be described as two particles “in love” or that entanglement can be replicated above the quantum level so as to translate to teleporting with your mind) and no sense of fantasy (e.g. when Mrs. Whatsit transforms into a giant green flying creature and the kids ride on her back, Meg’s response is to poorly describe the fluid dynamics that cause the phenomenon of lift instead of being in awe of the sublimity of the moment). It is fantastical when it should be scientific and scientific when it should be fantastical.
Near the very end of the film, Meg is attempting to save Charles Wallace from the It, which has taken over his mind. The line she saves him with is: “And you love me, because I deserve your love” (emphasis mine). This is a perfect lens through which all the problems of the film can be seen, a trite line reflecting failings both tangible (dialogue, soundtrack, cinematography, acting, direction, etc.) and philosophical. It misunderstands its source material, which in this case means misunderstanding what love is entirely, being seen as something that is deserved and not something that is given to others without condition. It’s Interstellar for kids, if it were directed by Christopher Nolan after being hit on the head with a polo ball.