There is a science fiction novel I first read over 30 years ago, and since the weekend when I consumed it again in two sittings, I have had an irrational itch to turn it into a film. I say “irrational” because I know objectively that there’s not a movie in it, and even knowing that, I still wish I had the money to buy the rights and start pre-production tomorrow.
Not every book makes an easy translation to the screen, and some books refuse to make the jump no matter how much talent you throw at them. I’ve seen two adaptations now of A WRINKLE IN TIME, and I suspect my biggest problems lie with the source material itself, which is not to say that I dislike Madeleine L’Engle’s classic sci-fi fable or its sequels. Far from it. I remember my first reading of A Wrinkle in Time, and part of that lingering impression is that the books always felt deeply, deeply creepy. Whether that was because of the not-quite-normal Charles Wallace or the strange dimension jumping or the matter-of-fact way the book folded quantum physics into religion in its storytelling is hard to say. Each book got stranger and darker, and the mythology that was created by L’Engle was dense and unusual. And like that book I’ve always wanted to adapt, part of the appeal is that L’Engle essentially created a Socratic dialogue of a book to talk about some massive ideas, and while that can be thrilling in print, it is a very hard structure to turn into a compelling onscreen narrative.
Let’s start with the good, and there is much of it here. The most essential thing in crafting any heroic journey is choosing your hero, and Storm Reid is a terrific find as Meg Murry. There is a sweet vulnerability to Reid, perfectly capturing that moment when a young person is just starting to come into focus as the adult they’ll eventually be, and when she is called on to show strength she’s not sure she has, that change feels real, like she is genuinely learning just how powerful she can be as a person. More than that, when Meg has to reason her way through things in the film, Reid sells the idea that she’s really thinking and reasoning her way through things. It’s not enough just to tell us that a character is smart. The actor has to be able to convincingly play intellect, and Reid’s eyes are so alive, so constantly engaged in sizing up everyone and everything around her, that it’s easy to see Meg’s supposedly brilliant mind at work.
There’s also a visual ambition here that I found striking, especially because so much of what we see these days in fantastic cinema looks the same. DuVernay’s vision of how this magic/science works is her own, and there is one moment in particular that took my breath away. It’s near the end of the film, and it’s during the final tesser — the first really controlled moment of interdimensional travel in the film. Meg takes a moment to finally feel this amazing thing she’s doing, to actually enjoy her accomplishment, and that one quiet image is such a great, iconic, different take on the “hero shot” that I found it very moving. Ultimately, the most urgent thing the film seems determined to impart is that heroes don’t all look like the conventional idea we’ve been sold, and heroics aren’t necessarily about punching things or blowing them up. Intellect and heart are valued above the things that typically define heroes, and the one moment of violence from Meg is on a playground, and it’s shown as a moment of weakness on her part.
When the nature of The It, the film’s “big bad,” is being described at a certain point, DuVernay makes it clear that she’s not interested in creating any villains that are simply bad for the sake of it. She views evil as something that creeps in, something that eats at people’s pain, that pokes at their soft spots and urges them towards being the worst version of themselves. There are conversations to be had after A Wrinkle in Time, especially between parents and younger viewers, that are going to be rewarding and worthwhile.
However, there is a passivity to the structure of the film that is hard to escape when you write a device like the Mrses. Errr, the Misses. Wait, how do you pluralize “Mrs”? L’Engle created her guardian beings as conundrums in temporarily human form, so it makes sense that even their names are confounding, like a sci-fi Abbott & Costello routine. There’s Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and their appearance is the call to adventure for the story. They’re the narrative hook, meant to draw us further into the film, and part of what is so creepy and unsettling for Meg is the way their attentions all seem to be focused on Charles Wallace, her younger brother. Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) is the first to appear, and that encounter was the first moment the film really felt like it misstepped. Witherspoon’s not remotely menacing, and she’s not particularly odd, either. She seems a little confused about things, but she’s all smiles, and Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) doesn’t seem upset enough about having a total stranger hanging out with her little boy in the middle of the night.
When they first meet Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), we’re introduced to the way she speaks, only quoting authors instead of using her own words, and while that should be a chance to put some truly beautiful words in the mouth of the character, it becomes a strange distraction. She follows each quote with a last name and a place of origin, and it plays more like a game that pulls you out of the moment than anything else. It works as a literary device, but in conversation, it takes all the focus away from what she’s saying in order to spotlight who said it.
Finally, Mrs. Which makes her appearance, and here’s where I find myself torn. I think Oprah Winfrey is the right actor for the part, and she imparts this sort of knowing, warm, expansive presence. Visually, though, it doesn’t feel like a strong enough choice to really show how alien and other these characters are. Even when Whatsit sheds her human appearance, the film seems afraid to really lean into the idea that these are people, or anything like people. They are something else entirely, simply wearing these forms to make Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin more comfortable. The larger problem with them is that they are so powerful and all-knowing that their presence in the film feels like a constant question mark. Why don’t they just go get the long-missing Alex Murry (Chris Pine) from wherever he is? Why do they need Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg’s classmate, to go along on the adventure? What is the nature of their powers or their relationship to The It? How do we know they’re good? Because they say so? They are like the attendants on a theme park ride, escorting Meg and Charles Wallace on and off the ride, but not really participating in any meaningful way.
And speaking of Charles Wallace… this is one of L’Engle’s most original creations — a singular child with tendencies that border on the supernatural. He is odd in every way, and doesn’t really fit into the world. It makes sense that he would be the one to first make contact with Whatsit and Who and Which. In the film, he’s a well-spoken little kid. Deric McCabe seems like a very focused and bright little boy, but he doesn’t really distinguish himself here, and without Charles Wallace at the center of the film, Meg doesn’t have the right person to push back against in the story. Those characters work to spotlight one another, and it strands Meg if the film doesn’t get him right. There are two other Murry kids who are simply cut from the film entirely, so it’s not like it’s a time issue. They clearly meant for the film to focus on Meg and Charles Wallace, but they never landed on how they were writing him as a character.
That’s true of the film as a whole, and maybe that’s what keeps me from connecting with it. L’Engle wrote a heady book, yes, and that book can feel like a cascade of ideas, but with the exception of Meg, no one else in the film feels like a fully-developed character. It’s hard to have either an emotional or an intellectual reaction to something that feels like it’s trapped behind glass like this. Ramin Djawadi’s score tells us more about the film that they’re trying to make than the film they actually made, and it feels like all the pieces needed to make this film were here. But even when they’re put together, it’s frustrating and oblique. A Wrinkle in Time is a film that feels like it’s afraid to be too complicated, but it’s not dense enough to feel complete.
There are design choices that work next to garish work that doesn’t, and part of that comes from the sheer ambition of what DuVernay is trying to do with her palette and her stylization. There was a ridiculous moment where a critic recently attacked the poster for the film as being “too feminine,” pointing only to the colors and the faces of the cast as proof, and it’s part of why everything in genre blockbuster filmmaking looks the same. There are certain colors and certain choices that are the accepted way of doing things, and no matter how far afield filmmakers begin with their choices, it seems like the system is designed to eventually homogenize everything. Since we default towards a boy-driven pop culture, that default aesthetic has come to be seen as male, and a movie like this can help expand that when it works.
Much of what DuVernay did stylistically here is a disruption on an intentional level, and if anything, I hope she pushes further with her next time at bat. I want to see filmmakers subvert and challenge the status quo even as they make Disney blockbusters, and if the results don’t quite connect, at least we see new voices dreaming big in new ways.
Running time: 109 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic