Into the Ether
by Kelley Dong
A Wrinkle in Time
Dir. Ava DuVernay, U.S., Disney
Madeleine L’Engle long deplored the “underestimation of adults.” A devout Episcopalian and astrophysics enthusiast routinely labeled a heretic, the late author insisted that philosophy, science, and theology were not beyond the realm of children’s comprehension, and—to the dismay of her editors and publishers—dedicated a hefty portion of her literary career to writing the God-fearing science-fantasies she believed young people deserved. A Wrinkle in Time, her most famous and frequently banned 1962 novel, merges Biblical cosmology, Christian Universalism, and the work of quantum physicists Albert Einstein and Max Planck to support its theory of the tesseract, a fold in time and space that manipulates the fifth dimension as a means to move between and through the other four. A Wrinkle in Time, the first of L’Engle’s “Time Quintet,” tells the tale of the Murry family, whose world revolves around studying the tesseract. The sudden disappearance of Dr. Alexander Murry, however, propels the remaining Murrys into a state of limbo, unsure of whether to move on or to continue waiting for his miraculous return.
For decades, loyal readers have maintained that A Wrinkle in Time—and the rest of the “Time Quintet”—is impossible to film. Madeleine L’Engle has already stated that John Kent Harrison’s 2003 made-for-TV adaptation was “bad,” preemptively cursing Disney’s hand at atoning for past offenses. Adapting the convoluted yet scant language of the text is in itself a catch-22: total fidelity to the novel risks attracting the same denunciations that flagged L’Engle for decades; but disloyalty jeopardizes the respect of a dedicated fanbase. In retrospect, choosing neither is the worst option. A large amount of skepticism was already leveled at Ava DuVernay and her capacity to sustain L’Engle’s vision. To an extent, the skeptics have won this round. Fraught by a scattered plot and jolting camerawork, A Wrinkle in Time suffers from the double-edged sword that is DuVernay’s affect-oriented sensitivity, a keenness that, in this instance, operates as an Achilles heel.
One of DuVernay’s noticeably deliberate deviations from A Wrinkle in Time is the replacement of the white Murry family with a multiracial one. To her credit, this nulls the recurring ignorance of L’Engle’s series—including a fictitious indigenous myth that predicts the arrival of a “blue-eyed baby” who will “bring peace.” But without the proper care dedicated to fleshing out the multiplicity of these identities, the film’s characters function as mere shadows of who they deserve to be. The story begins in downtown Los Angeles, four years after the vanishing of Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine). Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is emotionally stunted by numerous traumas that torment her daily, as introduced in a series of sketches. There is the fear that her father will never return, a bully named Veronica (Rowan Blanchard) who lives next door, her failing grades, a misunderstanding mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and a self-hatred directed at her natural curls. DuVernay never unifies the pieces, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps.
The rifts only widen when A Wrinkle in Time forcefully introduces a mythology that replaces L’Engle’s Christianity with a strain of uninspired humanism. In the midst of a storm, Meg’s prodigy brother, Charles Wallace (an adorable Deric McCabe), introduces Meg to his friend, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a celestial being from somewhere in “the universe.” It is through Mrs. Whatsit that Meg learns that the tesseract—a cosmic mystery uncovered by Mr. and Mrs. Murry, subsequently mocked by the NASA community—is real. Mrs. Whatsit manifests the following day in the Murry backyard, alongside her compatriots Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), adorned in glitter, jewels, and sashes. “We heard a call out in the universe,” explains Mrs. Which. The call, of course, belongs to Dr. Murry, who longs to come back to Earth. The children must assist the Misses in retrieving him. Drawn by what Charles Wallace calls destiny, Meg’s classmate Calvin (Levi Miller)—whose character can only be described as cute—shows up walking down the street, then immediately joins the two on their intergalactic journey. It starts with a “tesser”: a mental joining with the “frequency” of the universe to hop through dimensions, imagined here as a slowed submergence into glowing sheets of light. But to tesser freely requires self-love, something that Meg evidently lacks. In a brief moment of privacy, Mrs. Which looks into Meg’s eyes and declares, “You’re beautiful.” Reid—whose emotional dexterity is remarkably palpable given the rigidity of the work at hand—returns the stare with a watery gaze.
Similar platitudes are scattered throughout A Wrinkle in Time, encouraging Meg to love, trust, and be herself. But the words lose their potency as Ramin Djawadi’s never-ending score blares into the heavens after every meaningful interaction, indicated by the actors’ long glances and contorted facial expressions. Making matters worse is DuVernay’s reinterpretation of the Misses, whose genuine love for the children is bolstered by the fanciful CGI events that they must gleefully explain to them. Metaphysics are tossed out the window in exchange for jittery flowers who love to gossip and a ride on the back of a giant flying leaf. Another glaring missed opportunity: Meg’s self-perception is likely fraught by an inner struggle warranted by her being a black, biracial girl, heavily implied by the sheer number of comments she makes about her hair. DuVernay lets the implications speak for themselves; but in doing so, she deprives even Meg of the opportunity to articulate how she might feel about the matter. This flaw can be attributed to the screenplay rewritten by Frozen writer Jennifer Lee, after a draft originally penned by Bridge to Terabithia screenwriter Jeff Stockwell. Lee’s frenetic script reduces all mention of atoms and teleportation to a PowerPoint presentation delivered by Dr. Alex Murry, who claims that intradimensional travel is only dependent on the mind. Ironically, the imbalance of A Wrinkle in Time derives from its privileging of children’s feelings over their intellects. Stockwell and director Gábor Csupó’s Bridge to Terabithia (2007) surrounds small-town kids with harrowing threats of classist, sexist bullying and bible-thumping Evangelicalism, compelling challenges that adolescents will inevitably come to recognize as structural circumstances. On the contrary, A Wrinkle in Time’s relationships—between family, friends, and creatures—are, at worst, bothered by light traces of vaguely bad things.
The Christian phenomenology that so tightly held together L’Engle’s fictional world secured Meg’s chaotic journey with an explanation: all events are predestined by the will of God. Without an equally universal moral center, DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time wages a lost and lonely battle against a purely abstract evil. While soaring through the air, the children point to an expanding black hole in the sky, and ask “What is it?” The Misses bluntly state that the darkness is the IT; the IT can be found in every dimension and every country on our globe. It is baffling that DuVernay forgoes her usually sharp political intentionality for the inappropriately dissonant range of events that she poses as earthly forms of darkness, via a PSA-style montage that depicts Veronica’s eating disorder, one man’s jealousy of another man’s promotion, and Calvin’s father berating him about grades. The issues themselves are valid; but the implied argument that the three are somehow equal is a clumsy grasp at straws disguised as universalism.
After landing on the IT’s place of dominion, the planet Camazotz, the children are rushed into direct confrontation with that obscure object of badness, of which they’ve only become aware a few hours ago. Camazotz, believed by many to be L’Engle’s notion of an authoritarian state, is referred to by the Misses as a “planet of many faces.” The sentient body whisks Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace away to a number of mini-worlds: a stormy forest, a suburb of identical houses and housewives, and a crowded beach. Besides the on-the-nose connotations of the conformist suburbia, the meaningless impulses of Camazotz, intended to be symbolic of a planet completely overtaken by darkness, resembles the roll-the-dice randomness of Jon Favreau’s Zathura (2005), but lacks the high stakes of Favreau’s world, in which each move was a gamble between life or death.
It goes without saying that Bradford Young’s presence is duly missed. In DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere (2012) and Selma (2016), Young’s eye complemented the auteur’s affinity for interiority—and a lack of interest in plot continuity—by smoothing out her tumultuous rhythm with spatial emptiness and soft lighting. Shot by Beauty and the Beast cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, A Wrinkle in Time veers in the opposite direction and indulges in Ava DuVernay’s worst creative impulse: the close-up shot with a shallow depth of field, accompanied by musical interludes that redundantly remind us all that it is important to be brave, to find beauty in everything, and to be a warrior. It is an unfortunate tactic that interrupts the film’s rare instances of intimacy and manages to ruin both song and scene. Meg’s tear-wrenching reunion with her father in a James Turrell-inspired vacuum of red and orange light—the strongest and most vulnerable exchange in the film, precisely because it takes place in an isolated, soundproof room—is cut short by the dramatic fade-in of Sade’s “Flower of the Universe,” the musician’s first track in seven years and one which could not have been any less welcome. Sade reappears in the subsequent showdown between Meg and the IT, who has taken over the body of Charles Wallace. Desperate to save her brother, Meg reminds him of the bond that they share, crying out “I love you!” The power of love disarms and destroys the IT, freeing the boy. But the colors of the scene are muddy: harshly lit, the children are as stiff as dolls, disconcertingly singing Sade together on the ground.
Within the context of Ava DuVernay’s filmography, A Wrinkle in Time presents a paradox. DuVernay’s earlier works have established a thematic interest in time as it relates to the agency of black people. Her first features examine how disruptions in time—whether caused by physical death or a systematically enforced social death—reconfigure the relationships between black families, lovers, and friends. Selma adopts a deconstructive approach to anti-black state violence by experimenting with decelerated time to identify the immutability of every second. An indirect counterpart to A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay’s 2017 music video for Jay-Z’s “Family Feud” was a nonlinear saga charting a black monarchy’s rise from a tumultuous 2018 to the rewriting of the American constitution in 2050. By virtue of story alone, A Wrinkle in Time indicates a sharper turn to the future; yet it further magnifies and enables the technical inconsistencies that have weighed down DuVernay’s narrative work for the past eight years. In her review of 13th (2016) for Sight and Sound, Fanta Sylla remarked upon the “hyper-contemporariness, [...] the timeliness” that distinguishes DuVernay’s style. But even in its futurity, there is an evasive haziness to the film, with no distinct position beyond being anti-evil and pro-individual self-empowerment for black girls. In 1984, author Michael Ende publicly denounced Wolfgang Petersen’s film of his book The Neverending Story, calling it “a gigantic melodrama of kitsch, commerce, plush, and plastic.” DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time is something even more unfortunate: though stuffed with money and flair, the film is nearly immaterial.