Cinema Dispatch: A Wrinkle in Time

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A Wrinkle in Time and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by Ava DuVernay

I actually have read the book that this movie is based on, and what I remember about it is… that I read the book.  Yeah, the big concern that I had with this film after seeing the trailers is that this material is NOT gonna be easy to adapt as the source material is pretty abstract and kinda confusing from what I recall which can work for a book that you’re supposed to sit there and absorb at your own pace, but is less likely to come together as well when put on the big screen.  Still, while the trailers were very vague and didn’t give much of an indication of what the story would be about, the imagery was striking and the director behind it is someone who is coming up in a big way in Hollywood, so maybe there’s a chance to pull this adaptation off given the resources behind it.  Will this be the next touchstone for all ages cinema like ET, The Neverending Story, or about eighty percent of Pixar’s output, or is this one of those films that goes big and then fails hard?  Let’s find out!!

The movie follows the story of Meg Murry (Storm Reid) who is the daughter of Dr. Kate Murray and Dr. Alex Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine); the latter of whom just up and disappeared four years ago and leaving his family to wonder what the heck happened to him and if he will ever return.  Naturally this doesn’t sit well with Meg who’s been having trouble in school lately due to bullying from kids who… I guess think it’s funny to make fun of a girl for her dad disappearing, and really only confides in her little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) who’s surprisingly smart for his age and has started making friends with three mysterious women who just randomly show up every once in a while.  After a particularly rough stretch at school where Meg bashes a girl’s face in with a basketball (TOTALLY deserved by the way), she makes a new friend in the form of Calvin (Levi Miller) who seems to be at least a tertiary part of the three mysterious women’s plans, and said mystery women finally confirm for Meg that her dad is STILL alive somewhere.  The only catch is that he’s halfway across the universe, BUT that won’t prove to be much of a problem because it turns out that humans can ACTUALLY travel across time and space using only the power of their minds; something that the three mystery ladies demonstrate by taking her, Calvin, and Christopher Wallace to the last known location of their dad which is some planet very far away.  We learn that the three mystery ladies are in fact Miss Who, Miss Whatsit, and Miss Which (Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey) and they’re some sort of cosmic entities that exist to help people across space and time fight injustices across the universe; and THEY manage to do it WITHOUT a blue police box!  So now that Meg and Christopher Wallace have a solid lead on where to find their dad, what will they (along with Calvin) have to face in order to find him?  Well, PROBABLY the black mystery ooze floating through space known as The Darkness as well as The It (no, not THAT It) which is growing and expanding at an alarming rate and will surely make it to Earth before too long.  Will Meg, Charles Wallace manage to save their father from whatever it is that has kept him under lock and key for the last four years?  What can The Misses teach this trio of children about the universe that will prepare them for the fight ahead?  Did Ava DuVernay manage to make a more psychedelic and drug fueled film on Disney’s dime than Doctor Strange!?  One SPECIFICALLY aimed at young kids!?

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“I AM INTERFACED!!”

The trailers didn’t make it easy to get a bead on what this movie would be about, and even after watching film in its entirety it’s still not something that’s easily described on a scene to scene basis even if the OVERALL structure is still rather conventional.  Now that’s not to say the film doesn’t work (spoiler alert: It works PHENOMENALLY well in places), but this is the kind of movie that pedantic jerk wads will delight in tearing apart for rather mundane and insignificant reasons (the thought of Cinema Sins getting their hands on this makes my skin crawl) and to do so would be missing the point to a malicious degree.  Now look, I’ve had my own fair share of pedantic issues with movies like Annihilation and even Mother, both of which work on their own form of dream logic the same way this film does, but while those movies felt empty and rather pointless despite their grand ambitions, this one feels meaningful in ways that not many films have been able to pull off.  It’s a bit melodramatic and cheesy while also having a somewhat wonky structure, but it’s strengths more than outweigh what flaws are there and it’s one of the more interesting and richly detailed kids films we’ve gotten in some time; right up there with The LEGO movie which I KNOW sounds like I’m taking a cheap shot at this film’s more serious tone or even at kids films in general, but it’s worth remembering just how much a shock to the system that film ended up being and how real its themes got towards the end!  So yes!  A hundred million dollar movie based on a classic science fiction book directed by one of our most talented up and coming filmmakers is as good as a big screen toy commercial, and I mean that with total sincerity and only a slight bit of snark!

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“I don’t know about you, but everything does NOT seem so awesome around here…”

The first thing to know about this movie is that it really doesn’t conform to any sort of standards we’ve seen in a wide release kids film; primarily because it operates on dream logic through and through.  Not absurdity which a lot of animated films go for (*cough* SpongeBob *cough*) and even more end up failing at (*cough* Angry Birds *cough*), rather the film goes for a more sincerely emotional form of expression that isn’t constrained by what we understand as natural law here on Earth or even the strict conventions of storytelling we see in Hollywood blockbusters, and while it can be argued that many contemporary works have borrowed heavily from the original story, you can see a wide breath of inspirations for its aesthetics and tone; all the way from Eraserhead’s use of abstract imagery to tell a very human story up to Steven Universe in how it presents strong female (or at least female presenting) characters.  More than any other reference point though, I found that it ended up sharing most in common with the modern Doctor Who series; especially due to the fact that its story is about a bunch of humans being dragged on a grand adventure by otherworldly warriors of good only to then prove themselves and all of humanity to be just as awesome (if not more so) than anything else that the universe can throw at them.  It even blends fantasy and science in the same way that Doctor Who does by not really stopping at any point to go into detail of how ANY of this advanced technology or the alien planets function in terms that would relate to our Earthly understanding of the universe, though while Doctor Who tries at least a TINY bit to stay grounded, this film manages to crank that sense of awe of the unknown to eleven.  The movie is constantly throwing imaginative and striking images at you that creates a tableau that is comparable to Terry Gilliam, Baz Luhrmann, and ESPECIALLY Tarsem Singh whenever he’s on point and not making something terrible!  And again… this is for a KIDS MOVIE made by DISNEY!  Now Disney may be good at a lot of things and have given creators lots of freedom to make their own unique vision (*cough* Maleficent *cough*), but I don’t think Disney has done anything this surreal and abstract in their entire catalog; at least in the modern era!  Sure, I didn’t like ALL the imagery in here and it can feel overly indulgent at times, but looking at this purely in terms of cinematography and design, it’s one of the best looking and most creative films we’ve gotten in years.

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Welp.  There it is.  Oprah has finally ascended to Goddess-hood!

Nothing REALLY makes sense here if you’re looking at it purely in literal terms.  Why are they able to breath on alien planets, why does an evil cloud in the sky essentially turn into a beefed up holodeck when someone lands on it, how are they able to travel across the universe using only their minds, are only a few of the things you might end up wondering about while watching it, and while stuff like that has certainly annoyed me in films that are similarly abstract, I found that it worked here because the film doesn’t lean on its MYSTERIOUSNESS to keep audiences engaged.  The two movies I keep coming back to as examples of doing this kind of movie poorly are Annihilation and Mother, so let’s go into just why that is.  The most obvious reason (and the one most embedded in personal bias) is that this movie isn’t a total downer like those films are.  Those films felt like exercises in nihilism where the only goal WAS to be cynical and defeatist about everything involved, and it takes a lot to sell me on such a depressing outlook which those movies failed to do.  It just feels so HOLLOW in those films when we see such unpleasant imagery coupled with a story lacking in the emotional weight to carry such dark themes which THIS movie manages to pull off with an exceptional amount of grace.  Depression is a HUGE part of this movie as Meg clearly has some issues she’s trying to deal with which is the driving thrust of the narrative.  I understand why Meg is upset and why she feels the way she does about herself and it works SO much better at creating emotional stakes and heartbreak than watching Jennifer Lawrence get assaulted by Christians or Tessa Thompson just… walking away to her death or whatever the heck was going on in that movie.

 

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“AS BEAUTIFUL AS ALL THIS IS, IT’S REALLY TRAUMATIZING!!”

In fact, let’s REALLY get into what makes this movie work despite its lackadaisical approach to narrative structure or world building.  Meg as a character is going to be TOO real for many people in the audience as the film pulls absolutely no punches about her problems, her feelings, and her general state of mind.  It’s the Lisa Simpson archetype to be sure, but where her story was always in the context of a comedic satire on THE NORMAL AMERICAN FAMILYTM as presented to us by decades of television, this character is in the context of a movie all about FEELINGS and EMOTIONS and all those things that someone like me is constantly trying to hide behind snarky jokes and bad puns.  She’s smart and gifted, but she’s also bullied, seemingly constantly, which has developed a sort of righteous indignation for those around here and the authority that allows the abuse to continue.  In front of her principal she’s stubborn and fearless because he’s expecting her to follow the social contract (be nice to others and don’t throw basketballs in their faces), when the system he’s the head of continuously failed to protect her.  It’s cathartic to see her not cower or wince when being confronted this way, but it also means she’s basically isolated herself from her peers and ends up feeling overly self-conscious about it.  Look, I am not someone who’s had the kind of experiences that Meg has had and I can’t speak to how well she’ll connect with everyone else out there, but that self-effacing defense mechanism is how I pretty much operate on a daily basis which made it very easy to connect with her on that level and also made me that much more empathetic whenever something made her feel uncomfortable; especially compliments as she visibly shrinks whenever someone says something nice to her.  There have been very few movies in the past couple of years that have made me squirm as much as I did in this film when one of the characters sits her ass down and tells her how special she is and directly contradict her less than stellar feelings about herself.  I’ve… been there, and very few movies can come so close to accurately replicating my own headspace, so seeing it here only made the more emotionally driven moments hit that much closer to home.

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NOPE!  NOT GOING BACK TO GYM CLASS!  MOVING ON!!

The movie does stumble in a few places, particularly in the first act.  I know that I’ve mentioned how it doesn’t really matter how any of the magical elements work, but they still do a haphazard job of setting any of it up in the first act.  The Misses in particular just come and go out of the first act in a way that doesn’t flow naturally with the story; just showing up here and there instead of building up to them through a series of strange events like they did building up to Hagrid’s appearance in the first Harry Potter movie.  Really, the movie doesn’t CLICK for me as something cohesive until they see THE DARKNESS for the first time and that’s not until ABOUT the thirty minute mark; not that there isn’t really good material leading up to that, but I just couldn’t get a bead on what we were watching until then.  Speaking of things I couldn’t get a bead on, I cannot for the life of me figure out just what the heck Calvin’s deal is; a character by the way that similarly pops up out of nowhere in the first act.  Yeah, they give us a decent gut punch towards the end to explain why he’s here in the first place, but even if his actions are MOTIVATED, he’s not acting like someone who just traveled across the freaking universe!  Not one scream of terror?  Not a MOMENT of regret for trying to play THE GOOD GUYTM in this situation?  I get that Christopher Wallace has some sort of prior knowledge of the situation which is why he’s letting all this wash over him, and I also get that Meg is fighting for something very important which is why she can’t let any of the bizarre and otherworldly things she’s seeing get to her, but with Calvin as the tag along it just doesn’t make any sense for him to be as chillaxed about everything the way he is in here.  Sure, I can see why they WOULDN’T want him to be a backseat complainer or to be the one to snarkly point out how weird everything is as that potentially could have made things too light for a film with such big ideas balancing al already difficult tone, but I don’t think the answer was to just let the guy fade into the background and just let everything else happen around him.  Also, and this is more of a PERSONAL gripe than anything, I don’t like the explanation of THE DARKNESS itself; at least as far as what it’ll do if it spreads.  Again, I don’t think we’re supposed to be taking it THAT literally, but if THE DARKNESS is supposed to do what the Misses fear it will do… well I’ve got some bad news for them because if Human History is anything to go by, THE DARKNESS is already here.  I won’t go TOO much into detail, but what the movie claims THE DARKNESS will do if it reaches Earth is not something I feel is appropriate to just hand wave as MAGICAL BAD VIBES FROM THE STARS as there are things in the real world (things that we as humans perpetuate) that do the very same thing.  Yeah, I doubt anyone is gonna take a kids movie as fact, but it still feels a bit… disingenuous I guess to leave human nature out of the equation as to why there’s suffering in the world.  TURNS OUT IT WASN’T CAPITALISM!  IT WAS THE GIANT BLACK CLOUD THAT DID IT!!

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“IT’S THE DARKENSS!  A BLACK MIDNIGHT EVIL MOTHER!”     “Is it Black Magic?”     “Yeah, something like that.”

I’ve heard a LOT of negative opinions on this film, and while I could be diplomatic here and say that I understand where they are coming from… I really can’t.  I can’t really see how they can ignore so much that is good about this movie and zero in on flaws that are rather minute; particularly anything involving “logic” in a movie about traveling through time and space.  Despite it not being especially well put together in the first act as well as the eclectic imagery incorporated, it’s REALLY not that hard to follow the narrative threads at play and the internal logic it sets up for itself, but then I guess making a fantasy film TOO fantastical is just not something that many people were ready for.  I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I REALLY liked this movie.  I’m not quite sure that I can say I love it considering the flaws that the film invariably has, but it’s absolutely worth checking out on the big screen if you’re open to its unique visual style and its focus on feelings and emotions rather than action and adventure.  I mean seriously, don’t we ALREADY have that covered by Disney with Star Wars and Marvel films, let alone THE REST of the industry which is putting out big scale blockbusters year round!?  Let’s see what ELSE can be done in with the absurdly high budgets that what we get in PG-13 action franchise films!  That can’t be too much to ask for, right!?

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