Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time, the adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 science fiction classic, “directed by Ava DuVernay from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, has been a long time coming,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times, “and it arrives in theaters buoyed by and burdened with expectations. It is the first $100 million movie directed by an African-American woman, and the diversity of its cast is both a welcome innovation and the declaration of a new norm. This is how movies should look from now on, which is to say how they should have looked all along. Fans of the book and admirers of Ms. DuVernay’s work—I include myself in both groups—can breathe a sigh of relief, and some may also find that their breath has been taken away.”
“By turns gorgeous, propulsive and feverishly overwrought, A Wrinkle in Time is an otherworldly glitter explosion of a movie, the kind of picture that wears its heart on its tie-dyed sleeve,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the product of a big, unwieldy and excitingly go-for-broke vision, one etched in bright hues and kaleidoscopic visual effects, in busy musical orchestrations and original pop songs from artists like Sade, Sia and Demi Lovato. Most of all, that vision finds expression in the faces of a diverse ensemble overshadowed, quite literally, by a mega-sized Oprah Winfrey, perfectly if almost redundantly cast as a benevolent deity.”
“There's never been a question as to whether [DuVernay’s] a major filmmaker,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “Middle of Nowhere (2012) should be taught in film schools on how to make a perfect intimate indie, and Selma (2014) is one of the best biopics made by anybody in the last twenty years, full stop. It was simply whether the barrier-breaking accomplishment would, in the end, outweigh the end-result achievement. This Wrinkle in Time is undoubtedly flawed, wildly uneven and apt to tie itself in narrative knots in a quest to wow you with sheer Technicolor weirdness. It's also undeniably DuVernay's movie as much as Disney's, and works best when she puts her feminine energy, high-flying freak flag and sense of empathy front and center.”
“The film sets up the strong bond between a NASA-employed theoretical physicist, Alex Murry (Chris Pine), and his inquisitive daughter, Meg (Storm Reid), before giving a cursory view of Alex's dreams of traveling light years using only the power of the mind's connection with the universe,” writes Jake Cole for Slant. “Then, the story lurches ahead four years after Alex's sudden disappearance to find Meg floundering in hostility, and the film bogs itself down in repetitive scenes of teenage alienation.”
“Less satisfying than the recent Pete’s Dragon, but told with a similar degree of revisionist zeal,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich,Wrinkle “scrubs away the Christian overtones of the source material in favor of some distinctly twenty-first century humanism. Jesus is out, self-worth is in, and it’s coming for your children . . . It almost doesn’t matter that the movie is too emotionally prescriptive to have any real power, or too high on imagination to leave any room for wonder; DuVernay evinces such faith in who she is and what she’s doing that A Wrinkle in Time remains true to itself even when everything on screen reads false.”
Slate’s Aisha Harris: “Watching A Wrinkle in Time unfold, I had to keep checking myself, wondering if perhaps the reason the film wasn’t working for me was because I’m not its target audience—a young adult. Indeed, the film leans heavily into the perspectives of its youthful protagonists, to the point where at times it feels like it were actually the fantasy of a fourteen-year-old kid. The generically beautiful Calvin is Ansel Elgort lite, and his flirtations with Meg fall flat and feel shoehorned in. Later, the narrative takes a turn into demonic child territory, and Charles Wallace essentially channels an infamous Twilight Zoneepisode. Depending upon how you feel about demonic children in general, your mileage may vary here, though DuVernay’s camera succeeds in balancing the creepiness (which could prove too much for some small children) with some dark humor.”
“The final act feels like a multi-part miniseries that’s been cut down to a feature film, with a rushed climax that feels too differently paced from the building of the premise and its stakes,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap. “But none of this is a deal-breaker, and the production’s strengths far outweigh its flaws.”
At the A.V. Club, Jesse Hassenger finds that “only Reid and Pine feel like they’re playing fully imagined characters, and DuVernay wrestles with how to make the overstuffed material both contemporary and timeless. For a kids’ picture, A Wrinkle In Time is relatively nuanced and idiosyncratic, with enough honest moments to ground its flights of fancy. Adults may be less impressed by a movie that peers into a pit of adolescent hell before hastily reentering the mystical light.”
“There’s no room to breathe or think or find your own way into an emotional moment,” writes Amy Nicholson for the Guardian. “By the end, I was so smothered in comfort my teeth were grinding.”
“DuVernay can’t seem to settle on a consistent visual or narrative cadence,” finds Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Her camera is all over the place, hurtling in for woozy close-ups and then rearing back to reveal what is meant to be vast splendor but is often just bland CGI prettiness.”
“There is a part of a filmgoer exhausted by an avalanche of stuff . . . that says, ‘I cannot get on board with a film that delivers wisdom through a giant, glowing Oprah,’” writes NPR’s Linda Holmes. “It’s possible that you have to have been a certain kind of kid to feel the maximum effects of this story. It’s possible that not everyone will experience, as I did, tears arising spontaneously in response not to either sadness or joy, but to truth, to the breaking open of emotional secrets. Tears not jerked, but loosed. . . . There are those who will not get past Sky Oprah. But for those who do, a rich film awaits.”
More from Will Ashton (Playlist, C), Peter Debruge (Variety), Tim Grierson (Screen), Vince Mancini (Uproxx), Peter Martin (ScreenAnarchy), Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter), and Matt Singer (ScreenCrush).
Talking to Melena Ryzik of the New York Times, Ava DuVernay explains why making A Wrinkle in Time took on an unexpected and profoundly personal resonance.
Meantime, Michael Dirda in the Washington Post: “I wish the film well, but having just reread the novel I can understand why editors turned down L’Engle’s manuscript. Artistically, the book is a mess; it’s illogical, derivative and confusing, with a rushed and unconvincing ending. In 200 higgledy-piggledy pages, L’Engle throws together magic, folklore, science fiction, dystopian nightmare, Christian religiosity, 1950s fears about communism, classic notions about individuality and conformity, mystical transcendence, some slapstick humor and a lot of sentimental pablum. One starts to look for the kitchen sink.”
Updates: The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that DuVernay “builds the entire movie around a core of dramatic intensity that differs significantly from that of the novel but nonetheless gives rise to several emblematic images (many quite simple and detached from the realm of intergalactic adventure) that resonate beyond the confines of the story. But the script dulls the sharpest details and eliminates the most idiosyncratic aspects of the novel, including most of the fascinatingly intricate world-building; what remains is a story that delivers emotional moments and delightful details that only vaguely cohere.”
“This is not a cynic’s film,” writes April Wolfe in the Village Voice. “It is, instead, unabashedly emotional. . . . And who would have thought in a film with this cast that the most cathartic moment would come from Zach Galifianakis? The comic plays the The Happy Medium, a seer who forces Meg to find balance within herself so that she can open up to the world and locate her missing father. . . . ‘It’s OK to fear the answers,’ he assures her, and you believe it.”
“The film’s visual style is its strongest asset,” finds Steve Erickson in Gay City News. “I suspect DuVernay read Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin as well as L’Engle and watched Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, avant-garde director Jordan Belson’s shorts, and the outer reaches of anime. On the most superficial level of eye candy, A Wrinkle in Time has a great deal going for it.”
“Most of us would like simply to praise A Wrinkle in Time for its multiracial cast, its multicultural soundtrack, and its ringing message of self-acceptance,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “Let me put a more positive spin on a negative review. The book is still out there for everyone to read: Please do so.”
Update, 3/8: “It's a gentle fantasy,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, “seemingly pitched at younger children, that would rather take people by the hand than punch them on the shoulder, and that’s a good thing; in fact, it’s the wellspring of the movie’s best qualities. There's a lot here that feels insufficiently shaped or fitfully realized, but at the same time, there’s a lot to like. It’s the Platonic ideal of a mixed bag. The newness of the new parts counterbalances the ineffectiveness of the stuff that seemingly every fantasy blockbuster does, and that this one doesn’t do well. A Wrinkle in Time has zero interest in seeming cool, and in its final third, it ramps up the sentiment into a zone that most big-budget movies don’t dare enter in the era of irony and ‘grittiness.’”
Updates, 3/9: Writing for Film Comment,Michael Sragow argues that this “adaptation is an insider variant on outsider art. It’s been made with a combination of complacency and misplaced confidence. In some ways it’s a throwback to the era when Disney owned the very concept of family films, except it isn’t as entertaining (not even for kids, I’d guess) as The Shaggy Dog or The Absent-Minded Professor. The filmmakers organize the human comedy-drama into a deluxe after-school soap opera that’s as much about Meg’s need for self-esteem as it is about her devotion to her family.”
More from Chris Feil (Film Experience) and Matt Lynch (In Review Online).
Revisiting the book are Jonathan Alexander, Cecil Castellucci, Eric L. Tribunella, Julia Walton, Hope Larson, and Cecilia Latiolais in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Katy Waldman for the New Yorker.
DuVernay talks us through a scene at the New York Times (1’45”), and Kristopher Tapley interviews her for Variety.
And at Slate, Aisha Harris, Dana Stevens, and Forrest Wickman discuss Wrinkle, spoilers and all (63’18”).
Updates, 3/15:Wrinkle is “an empowerment seminar in disguise, a sleepaway emotional retreat where the prize for convincing Oprah Winfrey that you love and believe in yourself is getting to call Chris Pine ‘Dad’ for two hours,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “Sounds indisputably great, I know, but the movie isn’t ‘great,’ not in the usual Disney sense. The requisite parts are all there and everything looks good under the hood, but DuVernay has given us a less familiarly satisfying ride than the norm. This movie is stranger, more bombastic, and messier than expected. It’s also frequently invigorating—especially, I bet, if you’re a kid.”
Alison Willmore notes that, in the run-up to the release, DuVernay “was, in effect, issuing a challenge: Is Hollywood ready to let a black woman direct a big movie that's not an incontestable hit without it crushing her career—or, at least, setting it back years? . . . DuVernay told BuzzFeed News that she aspires to have the kind of genre-hopping career of directors like Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, and Ron Howard: ‘If you want it, you’ve got to take big swings. So that’s what I’m trying to do.’ Big swings mean you don't always connect—which is fine, so long as you're not confined to a single at-bat.”
“Bad movies happen to good people,” writes Richard Von Busack in the Pacific Sun. “And reactions to the errant awfulness of A Wrinkle in Time may not represent the alt-right’s slander or white backlash from Black Panther’s wonderful world of color. Ultimately, the multi-colored style of this movie will triumph. This film’s failure won’t even be a wrinkle in the progress to come.”
Kelley Dong for Reverse Shot: “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.”
In the Stranger,Charles Mudede suggests that “anyone with a certain amount of mainstream production experience and technical proficiency could, with the given cultural materials—which are not eternal but historically conditioned and malleable—have made the exact same film. And this is exactly the main problem I have with it.”
Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader: “The director not only fails to capture the childlike wonder of A Wrinkle in Time; she also reveals herself to be a terrible director of children. The young actors come off as stiff and awkward, never conveying their characters' rich emotional lives. . . . The adults don't fare much better.”
But for the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, “it’s refreshing to see a kids’ movie that’s content to remain just that, and doesn’t feel a need to douse itself in pop references or inside jokes. Find the right frequency, and you just might enjoy yourself.”
At Slate, Lena Wilson presents “a breakdown of the similarities and differences between” the novel and the film.
Meg’s “insecurity she feels about her curls is political as well as personal,” writes Kyle Buchanan at Vulture. “‘Throughout the film, we tried to take what Madeleine L’Engle intended and push it even further in terms of a contemporary context,’ said DuVernay . . . DuVernay’s Meg continues to shrink within herself if anyone so much as mentions her curly hair, but her self-image in this fantasy film is subtly informed by the reality of being black and female. ‘Hair is a big deal for black women,’ said DuVernay. ‘There’s the European standard of beauty that we’re all exposed to and bombarded with that says, My hair needs to look like a Caucasian woman’s hair: straight.’”
For the Guardian,Hadley Freeman roams the set, talking with just about everyone involved in the film’s making.
Updates, 3/18: Slate’s Aisha Harris and Veralyn Williams discuss Wrinkle on Represent (36’19”).
Megan Conner profiles Gugu Mbatha-Raw for the Observer.
“What we do see of the visual effects and production design is ultimately less spectacular (and less pleasurable) than a late-1970s episode of Doctor Who, keeping to the last what should have been there from the start,” writes Violet Lucca for Sight & Sound.
“I really hated watching A Wrinkle In Time,” writes Sean Burns, “and by this I don’t mean that I hated the story (what I could glean of it) or the characters, but rather that I hated the physical act of looking at the movie and trying to follow the visual information as presented onscreen. DuVernay and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler have shot the film almost entirely in disorienting close-ups and cut them together in a willy-nilly fashion that cares fuckall for spatial relations. It’s so visually incoherent that the gigantic IMAX presentation made me nauseous, and this isn’t exactly a movie with a lot of fast-paced action. In fact, most of it consists of folks standing around curiously empty sets explaining the plot to one another.”
“DuVernay’s genuine triumph is making Meg relatable, rootable-for, and worth following through every zig-zagging rabbit hole of Jennifer Lee’s script,” finds the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “The choices leading up to it are sometimes cheats, but the film’s moving finale owes a huge amount to Reid. If there’s one thing the CGI-as-magic-carpet era can’t yet succeed in falsifying, it’s this young actress’s intuitions for coming back to earth.”
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds Wrinkle to be “good-natured, unworldly, a bit ungainly, not a masterpiece, but amiable and generous in spirit.”
Update, 3/31:Wrinkle is “remarkable for DuVernay’s singular vision of the fantastical worlds through which the characters travel.” At Hyperallergic, Dany Chan finds parallels between these worlds and the work of artists such as the Hudson River School painters, James Turrell, and Joel Meyerowitz.
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