Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

This is a difficult movie to review for two reasons:

I am a big fan of the book series and spoilers are required to explain my problems with it.

While I believe my criticisms of the film to be rational and accurate, my subjective bias here may incline me to be a bit harsher on the movie than it deserves.  With that in mind, be warned:


The story follows the Meg Murray (Storm Reid), a tweenager who is dealing with the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine) after he had been working on inter space travel through something called a tesseract that bends or "wrinkles" space and time.  She lives in her lonely house with her little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her mother (Gugu Mbatha Raw).  Meg is awkward and isolated from her peers, even though she has a huge crush on her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller).  But one day the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) enters the house during a thunderstorm to let them know that tesseract is real.  These leads them to the other mysteries beings like Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who only speaks in quotes (though this is dropped later in the movie when, I'm assuming, the writers realized how stupid this was).  And finally they encounter the literally gigantic Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).  Together, the go on a planet-hopping adventure to save Meg's dad from a creature of pure malevolence called "the It" ("the" being added so as not to confuse the audience with Pennywise the Clown, I'm guessing).

Let me say that director Ava Duvernay makes the movie beautiful.  The cinematography, with its use of light, color, and shape is fascinating to watch.  It's visual palate shifts from Marvel movie to Kubrick with great ease.  This is sometimes done with great emotional effect.  The scene where the children are flying along with a transformed Mrs. Whatsit is uplifting and magical.  The moment that Meg is reunited with her father is emotional and powerful, filled with genuine emotion brought out by the strange visuals.

But those positives are not enough to outweigh the movie's deficits.

In terms of performance, I tend to give a lot of leeway to children and not expect as much.  Reid is actually quite good as the smart, but insecure Meg.  Miller also is adequate as Calvin.  But McCabe cannot quite meet the challenge of playing a character like Charles Wallace, who is someone smarter than his years should let him but still lacks the maturity that should go along with it.  When Charles Wallace becomes enthralled by the It, he should carry with him a sense of powerful menace.  But McCabe cannot be anything more than an annoyance.  And all that is fine, since these performers are so young.  The main problem lies with the adults.

Oscar-winner Witherspoon turns in one of the worst performances of her entire career.  It feels like DuVernay said to her, "Be Elle Woods but weirder."  Her eyes go wide with excitement, but there is no thought behind it.  None of her actions make sense outside looking to be quirky.  Kaling's character is supposed to be so old and wise that she has moved beyond language.  Fair enough.  But none of that is conveyed by the performance.  Rather than infusing her quotes with her ancient presence, it feels like Kaling is randomly reading mediocre fortune cookie slips that have no connection to the action.  But the most annoying is Winfrey.  Throughout the entire film she has an irremovable sneer of smugness on her face.  I got the impression that we are supposed to be impressed by her mere presence and she knows this.  But her character lacks any real emotional or mystical power that it all seems strangely unwarranted and mildly repelling.  Pine and Raw do fine, but their scenes are too short.

I also found the constant emotional validation such a narrative turn off.  Meg is told every few minutes that despite how she feels, she is wonderful and beautiful and powerful.  This completely undercuts her journey.  Harry Potter constantly beaten down by his enemies at Hogwarts, but his friendships and his accomplishments build him into a hero.  Meg is constantly told that she already is amazing and she only needs to realize it.  This is so much more less interesting than someone who earns their heroism to trial and failure.

This leads to two of my biggest bugaboos with this film.  The first is a line towards the end when Meg says, "I deserve to be loved," or something to that effect.  These words are like nails on a chalkboard to me.  It is very true that the deepest need inside each human heart is to be loved.  So much of what we do is done to "earn" the love of other people.  Nature moves us to love of family members.  Social interactions push us to love friends and spouses.  And God's command orders us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But nowhere in that equation would I ever think to say that I "deserve" to be loved.  I deserve to be treated with dignity and with my rights.  But I do not deserve love.  I am not good enough to have the friends I have.  I am certainly not good enough to be blessed with greatest wife in the world.  And I will never in a billion years be good enough for God's love.  None of these things are things that I deserve.  Because love, in order to be real, must be a gift freely given.  It is not something one is owed.  It is something one is undeservedly given and accepted.  This sense of entitlement to love can only lead to deep resentment when other people in their frailty will fail to love you the way you desire.

But the second problem is the one that ruins a good portion of the movie.  After Meg is reunited with her father, the It, through Charles Wallace, attempts to keep them both imprisoned.  In the book, Meg's father realizes their peril and despairs of being able to save Charles Wallace.  So he pushes Meg and Calvin to safety through the tesseract and reamains with his possessed son on the evil planet.  In the movie, Meg's father, in an act of pure cowardice, tells Meg that they have to abandon Charles Wallace and save themselves.  It then becomes Meg who pushes Calvin and her father to safety and she stays to free her brother.

This destroys the heart of the story.  It was about a girl trying to save her father.  After this, her father isn't worth saving.  Perhaps I am being too harsh, but it is so unfathomable for me to watch that scene and feeling anything but contempt for that man.  I understand that this gives Meg the opportunity to stand up as a hero on her own, but the book accomplishes this without ruining the father.

What it comes down to is that the writers (Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell) and director DuVernay simply did not understand the source material.  While changes have to be made in any adaptation, you should never stray from the core of the story.  The writers mentioned in interviews how they deemphasized the Christian themes of the book.  The filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings understood how Tolkien's Catholic faith influenced the plot and themes of the book and made sure not to tear it out of the narrative.  The same can be seen with the makers of The Chronicles of Narnia movies.

But DuVernay and company have done great violence to the story.  So instead of this movie soaring to new heights, it is to eviscerated to ever really take flight.

image by Yasir72.multan

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