Do we expect too much of films these days? It’s become the routine checklist for each new release: How does it resonate in Trump’s America? Does it take on new meaning in the #MeToo movement? Did it portend our fractured culture? Make an indictment against guns? Reveal our biases in racial, gender, and sexual identity? Forget whether it meant to do any of those things. That hardly matters.
Of course, that is the entire point of cultural criticism, though of late it can seem like we’re on more of a spelunking expedition to find sociopolitical meaning in anything, everything from The Big Bang Theory to Fifty Shades Freed. But when this ideating collides with the right pop culture and the right messaging to be parsed, internalized, and championed—Get Out, Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Call Me By Your Name—the results are explosive. Society-changing. Life-changing, even.
At a time when one might groan over yet another “How So-And-So Movie Means More in the Trump Era” piece, A Wrinkle in Time is an example of a movie that is elevated by this thinking. In fact, it necessitates it.
On its own, the star-studded film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic, controversial 1962 novel, is a visually dazzling, if tonally meandering odyssey that tempers its sci-fi gravitas with a child’s sense of humor. It’s the rare live-action family film to feel like a bonafide kids’ movie, with all the trappings of a screenplay catered to that demographic—albeit one that can at times feel on-the-nose, or more didactic than wondrous.
It’s a film with lots of Disney-sparkled bells and whistles. It’s also a film that is so pure, to the extent it’s almost jarring to take in given all that’s going on in the world and how jaded we’ve allowed entertainment to become.
But all of that is secondary to the film’s—and we’re wary of turning anyone off by even saying the word—importance.
Its mere existence is important. Director Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a film with a budget of over $100 million. She paints her film with expensive, but colorful strokes. At nearly any turn in which she could buck convention, she cast colorblind. Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling are two of the wise Mrs. guiding heroine Meg Murry, played by Storm Reid. Arriving on the heels of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the back-to-back blockbusters herald a revolutionary cultural moment for a part of culture rarely seen on screen.
It’s perhaps because of this cultural moment that a micro-controversy emerged in a very insular stratus of media, when critics who typically race to type out their 280-character reactions to films following early media screenings stayed uncharacteristically silent. The idea was that perhaps they felt the need to withhold any reaction short of a rave, should they be seen as sullying the moment or the film’s potential reach. The word-of-mouth we’ve heard is decidedly mixed: a recognition of the film’s glorious effects and well-cast performances, but also an ambition that left lots of big themes, tones, and set pieces stranded without proper flow.
But those observations, whether good or bad, ignore the film’s impact.
This is a sci-fi film that smiles back at the people of color who have eternally loved the genre despite being nonsensically rebuked by it, one that is feminine but not for-females-only.
It’s a film in which the lead is a teenage, biracial girl, one with un-self-conscious interest in and aptitude for science and math, who goes on a journey to embrace the parts of her she’s been told by society to ignore or demean, and uses those very qualities as weapons to save the day. If DuVernay occasionally lingers the camera a beat or two longer than we’re used to on images of Storm Reid as Meg on her path to victory, it’s because she’s luxuriating in their meaning, lavishing those images on the young people who will be watching.
More, it’s a film that warns against the evils that surround us every day, and against the kind of complacency that comes when it’s easier to sacrifice our light and become complicit with the darkness. There’s a topicality to that message that shouldn’t need elucidating here, on a website that daily chronicles acts of gun violence, threats of war, forced indignities on citizens, and an institutionalized lack of compassion that’s led to riots, cultural splintering or, worse, ambivalence.
With bold, bright colors, magically imagined worlds, and, sure, a touch of heavy-handedness, too, DuVernay and A Wrinkle in Time set out to create a new generation of warriors. At that, it succeeds.
The plot should be familiar to the millions who read L’Engle’s novel in grade school, as the film is, by and large, faithful to the book. For a novel that levies quantum physics and teenage insecurity into its plot with equal measure, it begins with iconic simplicity: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
It’s one such night when we meet Meg Murray in the film, a young girl noticeably changed by the disappearance of her brilliant scientist father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. She and her adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), a genius in spite of himself, are alienated by a grief, loneliness, and oddness that, to observers, shadow their potential. Mr. Murry, you see, had figured out a way to bend time to travel throughout the entire universe. The problem is, he got lost.
Responding to Mr. Murry’s cry for help somewhere out in the interplanetary ether, three celestial beings named Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Winfrey) whisk Meg, Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on an adventure to rescue Meg’s father from a spreading evil, “The It,” that has entrapped him—and threatens to infect Earth with its darkness as well.
They transport the youngsters to fantastical planets—the settings of some jaw-dropping camera shots, many of which were filmed on-location in New Zealand and a sequoia forest in Northern California—before leaving them armed with the self-confidence they need to make a difference in the world, and by extension their own lives.
As Mrs. Whatsit, the youngest of the Mrs., Witherspoon is subtly snarky and uncouth, a hoot who relishes every second spent draped in costume designer Paco Delgado’s celestial couture. Kaling’s Mrs. Who, whose wisdom is expressed solely in philosophical maxims, radiates regal earnestness and care. And then there’s Oprah, Winfrey’s Mrs. Which, looming large above everyone as a shining beam of light, a guiding presence watching over and leading us all. (Could the casting be more perfect?)
Naturally it’s Winfrey who delivers the monologue to Meg that underlines the power of the movie. And, in doing so, she offers those of us watching our marching orders, too.
“The darkness is spreading so fast these days,” she says. “The only thing faster than light is the darkness.”
It’s only a matter of time until the darkness breeds fear. The fear turns to rage, and the rage leads to violence. Then, there’s a tipping point. “We’re in search of warriors who can fight the evil, who can bring hope back.”
It’s impossible not to redirect the speech into commentary on our current society. And while there are some who might scoff at just how explicit or obvious that parallel is, we’d argue that, especially in this kids’ film, that’s precisely its efficacy.
There’s a (not-spoilery) moment near the end of the film when the three Mrs. gift Meg with tools to help her on her journey. They are three ideas that are canny metaphors for this film’s own value, not to mention what we should hope to glean from it moving forward: own your flaws, for they can be your greatest assets; remember to look at the world differently than you’ve been conditioned to; and, no matter what, never abandon each other.