By: Steve Pulaski
Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time is stuck in limbo as a film, right down to the point where it's unsure of its target demographic. This is a film that's perhaps too frightening for young children, yet too one-dimensional for adults. Similar to Kubo and the Two Strings, I have confidence that those who will appreciate it the most will find it in due time. But even then, will their level of appreciation make them content with the final product or quietly wishing for something greater?
DuVernay's film has all the imagination in the world, but it lacks the grounding its ideas need. Its unwritten, unspoken motto should be "anything goes," as that appears to be the film's justification for when the on-screen action begins to take hold of the characters. The team of visual effects artists, makeup professionals, and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Beauty and the Beasthave the tall order of laying the foundation for the film in beautiful primary colors since Jennifer Lee's screenplay fails to do it justice with any sense of worldbuilding. It lumbers from one disjointed vignette to another, strung together by the vague remnants of an unnecessarily convoluted plot bound to dampen anyone's excitement for a new and memorable twist on a beloved fairy-tale.
The film follows Meg Murry (Storm Reid, a relative newcomer to acting at age 14), a thoughtful and sensitive young girl still reeling over the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine), who was lost in the cosmos a year ago. Isolated at school, with her insufferable little brother Charles-Wallace (Deric McCabe) coming to her only defense, Meg struggles to lead a normal life under the guide of her still grieving mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It is when their humble abode is paid a visit by an eccentric woman named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and then Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and finally, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who inform Meg and Charles-Wallace that, if they come with them, they will have a chance to see their father again. Tagging along is Meg's crush, Calvin (Levi Miller), who provides some noteworthy perspective for a debatably inessential character, and the three young kids are transported into an otherworldly, time-bending universe. It's a world slowly being overrun by a personified evil known as "The IT," which the kids are tasked to defeat while bumping into more strange inhabitants.
The characters they meet range from a scenery-chewing Zach Galifianakis, playing a being literally credited as "The Happy Medium," to Michael Peña as a quirky slickster who abducts the precocious Christopher-Wallace at a beach the three stop at in the midst of their journey. The tribulations Meg, her brother, and Calvin face feel decidedly underdeveloped and mystifying in their ultimate purpose, as if their separate existences are supposed to show the competence of modern digital imagery as a device as opposed to a tool that enhances the entire film. Because the side-characters' involvement with the story itself is regimented, existing on very singular and separate planes from everyone else, as you might expect, the quality of acting varies. Everyone appears to be marching to their own beat, for a consistent one hasn't been provided for them. Reese Witherspoon looks lost throughout most of the film, in search of a purpose for her character, while Mindy Kaling is a nonfactor, and Oprah's demigod-like status is evident only for the star-power it brings as opposed to any broader impact it might've had with some improved writing.
DuVernay helming A Wrinkle in Time is history in the regard that she is the first black woman to direct a film with a budget exceeding $100 million, while also only the third woman to direct a project of that sum or greater. Her path to this project is similar to various other, predominately male directors (Colin Trevorrow, Marc Webb, and Ryan Coogler to name a few), who made a splash with a medium-budget film (DuVernay's Selma received Oscar nominations in 2014, and her subsequent documentary, 13th, received critical acclaim) to then be handed the freedoms afforded by a significantly larger one with franchise potential. It would be unfair to harp a lion's weight of the blame on DuVernay herself, but so much of the film feels overwrought in it direction.
By striving to be a film that's both universal in its message but specific in its representation, A Wrinkle in Time recalls the same issue that was found at the core of Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, a film I initially liked until I largely forgot about its existence soon after seeing it. Both films set up immense worlds that are filled with gorgeous visuals and intriguing dynamics, but become so confused in where they want to take their ideas that they wind up at the mercy of an episodic structure. More noticeable than Bird's endeavor, A Wrinkle in Time falters from its uncertainty in realizing the environment it creates. I never got the idea of whether we're supposed to be on Earth, in an alternate reality, or in an entirely different galaxy all together. DuVernay and Lee are so fixated on making moments out of the delightful faces in their cast that they squander the interworkings, let alone the specifics, of the verisimilitude.
A Wrinkle in Time inspired me to put pressure on why I found the recently released Annihilation to be such an engrossing motion picture. It was a film that left some ideas to the interpretation to the audience, but allowed a firm foundation of plot-points to coexist with the imagination it was bringing forth. A Wrinkle in Time, on the other hand, has enough imagination and gorgeous visuals to fill a cinematic universe. What it lacks is the stability needed in clarifying the motives of its characters and the world it wants to create. Instead, it cloaks everything it summons in emotionally manipulative pathos and incessant characters that scramble frantically in search of some cohesion not provided by the project itself.