On A Wrinkle in Time's essential voice and its failure of psyche
A Wrinkle in Time Walt Disney Studios
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenplay: Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L'Engle
Starring: Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Andre Holland and Michael Peña
Rated PG / 1 hour, 49 minutes / 2.39:1
March 9, 2018
(out of four)
A movie has its own body language. Its own tells and unspoken signals. It has a way of revealing its state of mind in ways its creators can't control. Just as a film or filmmaker's confidence can be immediately perceptible, so too can the opposite; we've all seen good directors or good actors look lost or uncertain in one film or another.
Like Jack Lemmon in Branagh's Hamlet or me around strangers, A Wrinkle in Time is in a state of noticeable discomfort. For a good chunk of its running time, anyway. Almost pathologically unsure of how to interpret its ideas, how or where to follow its visual logic, how to react to its collision of tones and styles, or even how to apply its imagination, the film is an aesthetic enigma that never finds a comfort zone. It's concept art without a concept, imagery without vision - a big blob of fantastical conceits and sincere emotions held together by nothing.
Well ... not nothing. Wrinkle is supremely confident in its inspirational purpose, the voice and pedestal it gives to its budding heroine, Meg Murry (Storm Reid). In its triumphant, celebratory close-ups and a screenplay that takes every opportunity for a motivational speech or daily affirmation, the film is intent on boosting the character's self-confidence and self-image, inspiring her to realize the greatness she's capable of. Fashioning an earnest empowerment fable out of a big accessible mainstream property - especially in such a generous, fearless fashion as this - is a worthy endeavor in and of itself. It's the material within that big accessible mainstream property that fails to pull its weight - or rather the filmmakers who don't know quite what to do with it. The bold abstractions, the twisty scientific notions ... aside from the most basic narrative ways (a big action setpiece there, a crucial moral decision there), the film never figures out how to make those elements support the bigger message. So it opts to just repeat that message a lot - constantly re-assert what it's about and who this character is supposed to be (or become) - without allowing the material to work its magic on her, to change her, to alter her perception (or ours). So we get a story of well-intentioned but ultimately superficial platitudes.
The simple way to put it is: this movie is not weird enough. We see the inexplicable and the magical and the strange, without any of it ever feeling inexplicable or magical or strange. A Wrinkle in Time folds the fabric of space and time; realities and consciousnesses invade one another; we are dreamt into other worlds, transported to peculiar planets. But the film never feeds off the wild personality of its subject matter; it never develops the state of mind that its images and its ideas are begging to become. It's not hallucinatory or outlandish or surreal*; in fact, it never develops much of a tone of voice at all.
* There is one notable exception to this, which we'll get to a bit later.
The film is built on eccentricity but is not made with an eccentric's sensibility. What we see on screen ostensibly fits that bill, but director Ana DuVernay and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (whose feature career has primarily been spent rotating between the handheld urgency of Peter Berg and the stagy banalities of Bill Condon) never figure out any grammar with which to express it. They shoot the images without ever capturing the intangible qualities contained within them.
Consider the fantasies of Gilliam or Miyazaki or Jeunet, and how specific, and peculiar, and personal every detail feels. They're always telling us something distinct about what we're seeing - something unmistakably theirs, something otherwise incommunicable. The fantasy that envelops A Wrinkle in Time's story doesn't convey any such personal purpose. It is an oddball CGI-infused fantasy as a matter of obligation, rather than personality. Then again: As much as one might be tempted to wonder what could Gilliam or Jeunet could have done with this material ... well, they wouldn't have made this film, and therein lies the double-edged sword. Those directors would almost certainly not have cast this lead actress, and given us this mixed-race family and this message of self-worth. That emphasis and that point-of-view are brought to the table specifically by DuVernay. They are what make her presence as the film's guiding force essential; it's just that her intentions aren't matched by any comfort with the genre material. A movie like this - with this director (the first woman of color to helm a $100M Hollywood production), and these specific focuses and preoccupations, and this protagonist - is necessary and overdue, even if "necessary and overdue" don't make the final result any good.
In fairness, there's an added degree of difficulty here, in that the fantasy itself - and what that fantasy requires the film's creators to bring to life - is about concepts rather than faraway places, planets, fashions, creatures, beings. Even what fantastical beings the story contains are more ethereal presences than tangible characters. The trio of Meg, her genius younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her classmate/mutual crush Calvin (Levi Miller) are contending not with a villain, per se, but a practically formless embodiment of the roots of darkness and evil. When they finally have to come face to face, per se, with that villain, it materializes as a gnarled tangle of giant pulsating electrical threads, which has taken control of a human vessel as a mouthpiece for its malevolence. To even get to that point, the characters have to learn how to move through space-time (or "tesser"), travel from reality to reality, and finally find themselves - in the film's most confident fantasy sequence - in a sort of Matrix-like simulation designed as a hypnotic trap. The journey itself is all about finding Meg's father (Chris Pine) - a physicist with big ideas who disappeared mysteriously some years ago - but strangely, that objective, and its emotional significance, doesn't register so much as the odyssey of self-growth that it necessitates. (As the scientist parents, both Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are terrific in underwritten roles.)
While the film does start to settle in when it's completely divorced itself from the bounds of reality, it's most uncomfortable in the intersection between its normality and its fantasy. Which is to say, in the interaction between its three principle human characters, and the three metaphysical spirit guides (for lack of a more accurate, source-specific term) who shepherd them on their journey. The first to appear is Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who arrives at the Murrys' home one night in the ugliest wedding dress ever designed (it looks as if someone rolled up a big swath of fabric, or a bedsheet, and decided it was clothing). She proceeds to cryptically, cheerfully offer hints of a world of understanding beyond their own - Charles Wallace knows what's up - and casually suggests it has something to do with Meg's father and the time-traveling research that may have inadvertently caused his disappearance. Mrs. Whatsit's appearance is a reality-shaking moment - for Meg in particular - and yet the scene just ... sits there. It doesn't alter the mood or the aesthetic equilibrium of the film; it's not idiosyncratic or funny or weird; and so poor Witherspoon just flounders under the expectation of eccentricity the film's creative team can't generate. Instead of a strange intrusion by a mysterious magical figure, it comes across as a neighbor showing up in your living room pretending to be kooky.
Later we find ourselves in the presence of Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in pithy quotes from artists, writers and philosophers. Her home is trying so very hard to be whimsical, and yet - particularly in the flat way it's photographed (to say nothing of its poorly deployed Dutch angles) - it only ever feels like we're looking at a film set rather than an idiosyncratic place. It never becomes a reflection of Mrs. Who's state of mind. The congested floors of her living room are filled with gravity-defying details like wildly crooked stacks of books - as if attempting something along the contorted lines of Tim Burton's visual logic - that come across like something you'd find in a Quirky Bookshelves section at Target, or a niche home-decor shop at the mall. Like so much of the film's experiments with fantasy, Mrs. Who's house is like a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a movie set rather than a credible expressionist realm.
Finally there's the most powerful of our three guardian angels, played most appropriately by Oprah. When she finally appears, she towers over everyone else - later shrinking to regular height when the circumstances require it. Problem is, the compositions don't really know how to handle her. As a figure, a symbol, a star, she is meant to be seen as majestic and powerful. Should be majestic and powerful. Instead, she just kind of stands there in the frame, a giant unsure of what to do with herself but just continue standing there. Rather than the godlike figure she's intended to be, she looks more like the nagging mother floating in the sky in Woody Allen's short film Oedipus Wrecks. What should be sublime is instead conspicuously awkward.
A Wrinkle in Time is an odd example of a movie that, on one hand, knows exactly what it wants to be and what it wants to say, and on the other hand never actually figures out what it is. An inspirational statement embodied by a powerful lead performance on one hand, a borderline cringeworthy attempt at fantasy quirk on the other. In its words there is a Lewis Carroll-like sense of sublime nonsense, and in its images hints of more riddles still - of existence, of time and purpose, of good and evil. But the film's overly straightforward undercurrents are just too strong. There is a pointed emotional statement in here, floating around in a world it can never put into the right language.