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Non-Review Review: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time is messy and unfocused, but also beautiful and wonderful.

It is wonderful in a very literal sense. A Wrinkle in Time is best enjoyed with a sense of childlike wonder, allowing the succession of beautiful and striking images wash over the audience. Director Ava DuVernay strives for a childlike sense of wonder, adopting a very heightened and exaggerated aesthetic. A Wrinkle in Time is filled with impossible and uncanny images that seem to have sprung from a rich and vivid imagination. This sense sense of wonder often has little to do with momentum, DuVernay finding a way to make actors standing in field of wheat seem enchanting.

Here comes the science.

However, A Wrinkle in Time suffers a little bit when it tries to force these images to cohere into a singular linear narrative. The plot of A Wrinkle in Time is an archetypal children’s adventure story, about a group of children crossing impossible distances and facing impossible odds in order to reunite a broken family. However, A Wrinkle in Time follows the familiar beats and rhythms without ever suggesting a central thesis or point. The issue is not that A Wrinkle in Time is a family film without ideas. It often feels like A Wrinkle in Time has too many ideas.

A Wrinkle in Time works better from moment to moment than it does as a single story. At is best, A Wrinkle in Time feels like an album of striking and evocative images paired with clever and provocative themes. However, these elements never quite line up as smoothly as they should.

It all balances out.

There are any number of possible explanations for this failure of impressive constituent elements to align to create a satisfactory whole. Perhaps pacing is a factor here, particularly as to how A Wrinkle in Time sets up its very familiar quest and adventure narrative. The first five minutes of A Wrinkle in Time establish all of the core elements. Doctor Alex Murry mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind his wife and children. It is a potent and suggestive metaphor for every parent who has literally disappeared into their work. Four years later, the family is struggling without him.

Meg Murry is a smart young girl, but one who struggles to fit in. She is bullied at school, and has allowed herself to become numb and complacent in the face of overwhelming grief and embarrassment. Charles Wallace Murry is a child prodigy, a young genius who very clearly loves his elder sister and the family into which he was adopted. These are familiar archetypes to anybody who has ever seen a family film. It is immediately clear that the arc of the film will involve Meg and Charles Wallace reuniting with their long-absent father.

Never too far afield.

However, A Wrinkle in Time takes a little too long to reach that obvious quest narrative. The film spends too long grounded in the real world before embracing the fantastical. Part of this is down to the decision to slowly introduce elements of the magical into the everyday world, with the children meeting each of three spiritual guides individually before being informed that their father is alive somewhere in the cosmos. The result is three scenes introducing three stock mentor characters, coming in quick succession, before A Wrinkle in Time begins to tell its own story.

This is an issue, because it means that the movie’s sense of wonder and adventure takes a back seat for about half an hour before plunging the audience into the surreal and heightened reality promised by the trailers and publicity campaign. There is a sense that the time spent carefully introducing these three mentor figures at the start might have been better allocated elsewhere in the narrative; in developing the wondrous worlds that Meg and Charles Wallace visit, or in the third act’s exploration of Alex’s guilt and responsibility for what happened to his family.

A glass act.

This lack of focus is an issue in other ways, even after A Wrinkle in Time leaves Earth. This is most obvious when it comes to the primary antagonist of the film, the cancerous black entity described as “the it.” In theory and in design, “the it” is a fascinating creation. It is a force of darkness that reaches across the cosmos and affects people in an abstract and spiritual sense. “The only thing that can travel faster than the speed of light is darkness,” reflects one spiritual guide of the nemesis nestled snugly at the heart of the story.

However, A Wrinkle in Time struggles to define what “the it” actually is. When “the it” is established as a force of evil in the universe, Meg responds with the entirely reasonable question, “What kind of evil?” In response, both Misses Whatsit and the film shrug off the question. “How many different kinds of evil do you need?” It is a somewhat disingenuous response, given that “the it” is defined as a very pernicious and subversive evil, something that reaches into the hearts of people and corrupts them.

“What kind of evil is ‘the it’?”
“Well, it’s definitely not a clown. Our lawyers made that perfectly clear to us.”

So, over the course of A Wrinkle in Time, it feels like “the it” comes to stand in for various different and incompatible versions of “evil.” A black mass that consumes and corrupts everything that it touches, “the it” occasionally feels like a literal representation of depression. “Every bad thought you’ve ever had about yourself is true,” the monster goads Meg at one point, which is very much the essence of what makes depression so scary; it sucks the life out of the universe and leaves only a sense of numbness and self-loathing.

At the same time, and perhaps more interestingly, “the it” is also used to represent conformity. Some of the most striking images in the film come from the uncanny imitations of mundane existence formulated by “the it”, grotesque parodies of suburban existence where everything – every building, every action, every noise, every person – movies in the same rhythm. At one point, “the it” wears a seductive face and offers Meg and Charles Wallace a buffet. “Everything’s been take care of, in toto, with no options or alternatives.”

The space between.

The entity seizes Charles Wallace when he sees through the facade, and realises that everything is the same in this world and that nothing has any unique value or meaning. This is an interesting twist on the nature of “evil”, on that might be rooted in the origins of A Wrinkle in Time as a book written during the Cold War. This fear of conformity reflects anxieties about communism. However, there is a sense that this fear could also be updated for the twenty-first century, particularly given the diverse cast at the centre of A Wrinkle in Time.

However, none of this really gels. A Wrinkle in Time seems to struggle to define what it is about in a larger sense, beyond the narrative framework of two children trying to reunite with their father. There are interesting ideas here, but they are never streamlined or distilled into a compelling thesis statement for the film as a whole. As a result, A Wrinkle in Time feels uneven. It veers dramatically in various directions, hinting at certain insights and possibilities before embracing a new approach and starting over.

Sadly missing from this picture: Misses Wheatsit.

However, A Wrinkle in Time works much better than it should. Part of this is down to a reliable and sturdy central cast, particularly lead performer Storm Reid. DuVernay has also assembled an impressive array of adult actors to support her young primary cast. There are small but effective turns from Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña and Bellamy Young. Chris Pine provides Alex Murry with a pathos that the screenplay never quite earns. Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey provide strong and sturdy mentor characters. It is good to see Winfrey acting again.

However, the most engaging aspect of A Wrinkle in Time is the manner in which the film embraces the possibility of wonder. DuVernay is an impressive director, and A Wrinkle in Time affords her the opportunity to embrace a heightened and stylised aesthetic. The production design on the film is absolutely beautiful, particularly the practical sets by Lorrie Campbell and the costume design by Paco Delgado. A Wrinkle in Time feels like a spiritual companion to those childhood adventure movies of the seventies and eighties; Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal.

Blue skies are gonna clear up…

A Wrinkle in Time arguably works best as a collection of striking visuals, captured by a camera gazing in awe and wonder. This is apparent even during the early scenes set on Earth, as the camera finds Meg on an over-crowded basketball court. However, it becomes increasingly clear once the protagonists venture beyond the familiar; worlds with flying flowers where the mountain peaks reach towards the sky like fingers, a cave of perfect balance, a beach that looks to have been plucked from Tim Burton’s nightmare, an ominously synchronised suburbia.

This has nothing to do with the film’s undoubtedly impressive special effects budget; even the scenes unfolding on minimalist sets as the movie races towards the climax have a grace and confidence to them that is rare for a film aimed at such a young audience; a creepy dark corridor that seems to go on forever, a vast white space that seems to extend like an infinite elevator shaft, a featureless prison cell lit in ominous shades of red and yellow. The worlds of A Wrinkle in Time feel rich and evocative, as if plucked from directly from DuVernay’s imagination.

Smoothing out the wrinkles…

A Wrinkle in Time is muddled and uneven. However, it is also enchanting and magical.

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