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A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

NEWSWEEK: So you’ve seen the movie?
Madeleine L’Engle:
 I’ve glimpsed it.

And did it meet expectations?
Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.

At the time, L’Engle was referring to the TV movie adaptation of “A Winkle in Time”, made by Disney in 2003. L’Engle herself passed away four years later. She never got to see a film adaptation worthy of the book’s iconic place in children’s literature. Cut to fifteen years later, when the unlikeliest director stepped up to give it a shot.

After racking up a few credits in documentary and short filmmaking, plus an impressive career as a publicist, DuVernay came onto the scene in a big way with Selma in 2014. Overnight, she had earned worldwide repute as a bold and hard-hitting filmmaker unafraid to take on the most sensitive issues of social justice. She’s an outspoken, intelligent, talented, and Oscar-nominated (!!!) black woman when the vast majority of film directors (and Hollywood execs) are white males.

So DuVernay was pretty much given free license to write her own check, and of course she had to make it count. Over the next four years, she threw us all a curveball by turning down Black Panther to direct an adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time”. A bizarre choice on its surface, but maybe this project needed someone who could think outside the box. It certainly paid dividends, I can tell you that.

DuVernay’s sensibilities are most plainly visible in the casting of Meg Murry, played here by Storm Reid. Obviously, casting a young black girl to play the protagonist raised a lot of eyebrows, but it adds a whole new layer to the story’s themes of empowerment. This was always a tale about a young woman growing to embrace what makes her atypical, so casting the role with an atypical choice actually makes a lot of sense. It’s not like this Meg Murry is some conventionally attractive young woman buried in glasses and makeup, made to look clumsy in some half-assed and transparent attempt at making her “relatable” (as we’ve seen too many times to name). Simply by virtue of being a young black woman in a white man’s world, brought up to value intelligence over beauty, and deeply hurt by her father’s disappearance, we can clearly see for ourselves what makes her special and why everyone else would try to put her down, relating with her in an honest and authentic way.

It certainly helps that Storm Reid is a phenomenal actor in the making. She really gets put through her paces in this movie and her performance is always strong, even when the material is weak. Yes, there is sadly no denying that Meg’s character arc is your typical monomyth fare, predictable enough to set your watch to. But then again, this is a holdover from the source material and the filmmakers do the best they can with it.

Of course, it helps that Storm Reid has such remarkable scene partners to work with. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Meg’s mother, once again proving herself to be far too talented to be stuck as a supporting player. Oprah Winfrey plays Mrs. Which and she’s… well, she’s there to be the inspirational mentor who brings out the best side of Meg, and that’s what Oprah’s built her whole career around. So basically, Mrs. Which is like Oprah, but she’s this larger-than-life figure with an ostentatious wardrobe and supernatural powers… yeah, Oprah’s playing herself in this, who the fuck are we kidding?

Still, Mrs. Which doesn’t really have that much screen time when you get right down to it. Of the “Mrs. W” trio, it’s probably Mrs. Whatsit that gets the biggest chunk of screen time, and Reese Witherspoon is great fun to watch in the role. Alas, Mindy Kaling is the weak link of the three as Mrs. Who. While the Mrs. Who of the book was always ready with the right quotation, this interpretation has apparently evolved so far beyond language that she speaks almost exclusively in quotations. (They even shoehorn a “Hamilton” reference in there for good measure. Seriously.) It doesn’t make a lick of sense and it’s a tragic waste of Kaling’s talent.

Getting back to the younger talent, Levi Miller (who made his unfortunate debut in the title role of the thrice-double-fucked-with-a-rusty-anchor Pan) is suitably charismatic as Calvin. The character is noticeably weaker on his own merit, working far more effectively as a sounding board/foil for Meg, but their interplay works well nonetheless. Unfortunately, Derric McCabe as Charles Wallace is more hit-or-miss. McCabe is at his most effective when he’s acting like… well, a kid. When Charles Wallace is bouncing around at light speed, excited about something that sounds like nonsense to everyone else, he’s aces. But McCabe never quite sells the notion that Charles Wallace is this prodigy with intelligence on a galactic scale. And when he’s acting like a demon child, it’s kind of unintentionally hilarious.

It certainly doesn’t help that many of Charles Wallace’s more evil moments are shot in super-tight extreme close-up. It’s really the only major misstep in what’s otherwise a visual feast. The production design is marvelous from top to bottom, the camerawork is inspired, and the otherworldly settings and creatures look phenomenal. Yes, the CGI is hardly flawless, but even the most sketchy of shots aren’t bad enough to be dealbreakers. The “tessering” effect is especially cool, watching space and time literally wave and wrinkle around the characters. And yes, it sucks that Mrs. Whatsit doesn’t turn into a centaur-like creature, especially since that’s so iconic to the book, but her transformation here is so beautiful and breathtakingly original that I really don’t mind quite so much.

Likewise, the Happy Medium is totally different here, but in a good way. In the book, the Happy Medium was simply a play on words: a stereotypical fortune teller who just happened to be perpetually cheerful. In the film, the Happy Medium is played by Zach Galifianakis, so we’ve already got a gender-flip going on. More importantly, while this Happy Medium still conjures visions of the present and future, he does so through introspection and discipline rather than reading a crystal ball. Granted, the faux yoga presentation is forced in a way that makes for clumsy comic relief and dated “trendiness”, but it’s far more thematically relevant and fun to watch. Additionally, the character and his home are both far more distinctly alien in their premise, and built around the concept of balance. Again, it’s more interesting to watch and far more thematically relevant. And of course having a shameless goof like Galifianakis as the Happy Medium was a smart move.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Pena, whose appearance as Red is little more than a memorable cameo role. Ditto for Andre Holland — blink and you’ll miss him as Meg’s school principal. Elsewhere, David Oyelowo steps in as the voice for the villainous IT, and his voice acting fits the concept perfectly.

But the real standout of the supporting cast has to be Chris Pine. The filmmakers took the natural step of giving Meg’s father a lot more screentime — both to establish his Tesseract Theory and to establish the personal stakes of getting him back home — and Pine sells every moment like the supremely underrated talent he is. If you want cold hard proof for why Pine should be given more hefty and dramatic roles outside of his work with Star Trek and Wonder Woman, definitely watch his performance here.

(Side note: Better yet, watch Hell or High Water, the excellent film that reportedly inspired DuVernay to cast Pine.)

So are there any other nitpicks? Well, there’s a lot of clunky exposition near the start of the film. It was really quite sloppy how a news story about Dr. Murry’s disappearance four years ago just happened to come up at exactly the right time. Also, kids at school teasing Meg about her father’s disappearance is pretty random even for teenage girls, and it’s baffling how two adults should have such a petty discussion about the Murrys in a public space without knowing that Charles Wallace was sitting within earshot.

Also, while the music wasn’t necessarily bad, the movie’s use of pop songs got pretty distracting. I was disappointed to see so many of the pop songs take front and center, especially when Ramin Djawadi — one of my favorite composers! — had been tapped to write the score. I’d much rather hear more of Djawadi and less of Sia or Demi Lovato, but I guess that’s just me.

Mostly, however, a lot of the film’s problems were carried over from the source material. Yes, the film can be ham-fisted, but the book was never exactly subtle either. And yes, there’s a great load of plot holes and a ton of stuff goes unexplained that would help a lot make sense, but again, that’s kind of the book. Which, as a reminder, was written in 1962 — it was a crazy time.

But then we have the central conflict of the book, and I’m not talking about how Dr. Murry went missing and now his kids have to find him. I’m talking about the grander conflict between Light and Dark, both portrayed as one-dimensional forces that are Good and Evil without any further definition or motivation. One of them wants to spread hope and love throughout the universe while the other ruins civilizations by infecting sentient life with jealousy and hatred.

On the one hand, I like how the movie is at least using binary morality to send a message. If the movie is going to portray good and evil in such dichromatic terms, the least it could do is make a clear and solid statement about what is good and what is evil. Thus it works as a story in praise of integrity and nonconformity, loving our own faults and imperfections while embracing the faults and imperfections in others, denouncing the bitterness and pettiness that brings down ourselves and others. On the other hand, this movie goes a step further, saying that the Darkness is an otherworldly alien force directly responsible for the bitterness and pettiness here on Earth.

…Okay. I think it’s finally time for us to talk about this. We’re ready for a cultural discussion on the topic.

Yes, I understand that this is nothing new. Fantasy has always been used to put a new context on things that make our lives harder. There’s also a degree of escapism involved, using fantasy to show how life’s regular trials really aren’t so bad. That said… well, let me give you another recent example.

From 2011 until 2017, there was a TV show called “Grimm”, predicated on the notion that there are monsters living among us in disguise as human beings. In fact, early in the very first season, we learn that Adolf Hitler was secretly a jackal-like creature who rose to power through possessing magical coins that dated back to the time of Alexander the Great. Consider that the Holocaust was an actual event in which millions of people actually died. All these decades later, the survivors are still grieving for their loved ones who didn’t make it, and an entire nation is still coming to grips with how they could have been complicit in allowing the Holocaust to happen.

And here’s this TV show, presenting a magical explanation for how Hitler and the Third Reich came to power. Like an entire nation of Germans didn’t willfully elect a madman into power, allow him to arrest and murder his own people en masse, and follow him into WWII. No, the good people of Germany were simply under a spell and were therefore totally blameless. What’s more, Hitler — and other homicidal maniacs, according to the show — aren’t really humans who made bad decisions and committed horrible crimes for any number of possible reasons, but they really are the inhuman monsters we imagine them to be!

Do you see how that might be insensitive to those who actually lived through such a thing? How this mythology takes responsibility away from those who actually choose to commit atrocities? Yes, it may be fiction, but these are still very real problems that very real humans are grappling with. Presenting them as magical and otherworldly problems inflicted on us by inhuman forces makes them inherently more simple to deal with. While that does make it easier to get a handle on the issues at hand, it also sweeps aside the possibility of a more complex and nuanced discussion that acknowledges those affected and may yield practical solutions.

Which brings us back to this movie. In which we plainly see that the school principal is closed-minded and more focused on his career than his students, the local bully is obsessed with her self-image, and Calvin’s father is an abusive asshole, all because of the Darkness. Some fictional evil is infecting the minds of humanity, one person at a time, and that is why these people are acting like jackasses.

I get the movie’s allegorical message, saying that the best way to deal with these obstacles is through compassion and integrity. But at the same time, again, these are very real issues that kids today are dealing with, and do we really want kids thinking about these issues in terms of a paper-thin otherworldly demon? The cold hard truth is that there any number of social and psychological reasons why people become bullies and/or abusive parents, and none of those reasons change the fact that these bullies are in fact human. To present them as inhuman is to present an inaccurate picture of what this abuse looks like, which in turn means that kids will be looking for a magical demon in themselves and others when they should be looking for a soul broken in perfectly mundane ways.

By the opposite token, this movie — like the book — name-checks Einstein, Curie, Gandhi, and others as warriors who stepped up for the Light. Do we really want to portray real-life people as superheroes? What does that do for the reality that these were actual humans, as fallible and flawed as the rest of us, however brilliant they may have been? Does it take away from all of their hard work and their hard-won successes if they’re portrayed as divinely inspired messiahs, so heavily assisted by fate and other powers that their victory was all but guaranteed from the outset?

What it all comes down to is this: A Wrinkle in Time (2018) is flawed in many of the same ways that the source text is flawed. A lot of it doesn’t make sense, the morality is simplistic and heavy-handed, and of course there’s the classic problem of cramming so much plot and backstory into so little screen time. Even so, the filmmakers did the best they could with what they had, and what deviations they made were ultimately for the better. Generations of kids and adults keep coming back to the book because it’s a cracking science fantasy romp that encourages the reader to feel empowered, and the film adaptation honors that beautifully.

It’s a fun movie, well-acted and spectacular to behold, with its heart in the right place. It’s hard to imagine a better adaptation of this same text coming out within our lifetimes, for better and for worse. It’s definitely a movie worth checking out, but I’d strongly recommend reading the book first. You’ll find it easier to take the movie on its own terms and you’ll have a more thorough understanding of where the filmmakers made improvements and where they were doomed to fall short.

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