'A Wrinkle in Time' film review: A rushed, messy CGI-heavy fantasy misfire
Given the erratic and jarring nature of Ava DuVernay's adaptation of "A Wrinkle in Time" (opening in theaters March 9), the source material must be nigh unfilmable. Cramming all the world-building, heady metaphysical themes and astrophysics simply results in a movie that, at best, feels rushed and at worst, is ham-handed and clunky.
In short: Four years after the sudden unexplained disappearance of her scientist father (Chris Pine), young teen Meg (Storm Reid) embarks on a journey across the universe to find him - she is also joined by her brother, a new friend and three strange beings. Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey also star.
The good news - "Wrinkle" is a visually striking adventure featuring an intriguing protagonist. Actress Storm Reid is easily the single strongest aspect of "Wrinkle," imbuing her character with a calculating intelligence - it is clear the wheels are always turning in her head. Her characterization of Meg is wholly believable and painfully familiar - she's self-conscious and distant due to the loss of her father. She is the emotional core of the film and the only reliable constant on a journey that borders on the needlessly bizarre.
Every problem "Wrinkle" suffers is because every aspect of the film is rushed. World-building is rushed. Character development (the little that there is) is rushed. Narrative structure (where is Meg's father and what is the "Camazotz"?) is rushed. Meg's character arch and evolution is the one wholly coherent aspect of "Wrinkle" - everything else is under-explained (if not carelessly tossed aside and abandoned altogether).
First and foremost - the film does not gives a satisfying definition of a "wrinkle in time." This is a problem because "tessering" (traveling through space in an instant) is the primary mode of transportation for the main characters and it would explain what happened to Meg's father (a trio of weird characters - more on this to come). Does it work with the power of the mind, as implied by Meg's father, or is it a quantifiable energy signature that a mad scientist can find using his garage laboratory? Can anyone "tesser" or is it a talent limited to inexplicably powerful beings, a discredited NASA researcher or "warriors"?
Meg is the only character fleshed out to any degree. She is joined on her adventure by her adopted brother and some boy from school. Her brother is apparently "gifted" with some sort of "potential" - neither of which is adequately explained or given any context. Basically he's more than just smart - but this barely substantiated plot element sets him up for a ridiculous character turn late in the film. The boy from school Calvin ... is just a boy from school Meg just met ... and apparently his dad is mean. Not much else is known about him aside from his tendency to compliment Meg. (Of course he'd voluntarily join a pair of kids he just met for a crazy adventure.)
This brings us to the aforementioned three "Mrs Ws" -- a trio of otherworldly and peculiar characters played by Witherspoon, Kaling and Winfrey. The first Mrs W just shows up - in a plot point that have been made to feel a little less random and arbitrary. The second Mrs W also just shows up -- and she has a funny way of talking. The third Mrs W is big ... and is Oprah. They hint at being alive for more than a billion years and they can "tesser" -- but aside from that, their characterization hinges on their eccentricities and uber-vague backgrounds.
If the main characters have shallow characterizations, the film outright neglects its set of one-note, one-dimensional side characters. There's the vindictive bully who targets Meg for vicious and personal harassment ... because they're neighbors? Zach Galifianakis and Michael Peña each pop in for a hot moment as flat characters who are little more than just odd characters exhibiting odder behavior while dressed in odd costumes. It's difficult to invest in characters when the filmmaker offers little reason to emotionally invest in them.
So Meg's father was captured by the "Camazotz, "a being of pure evil. Is it the source of all evil or one of many sources of evil and darkness? If she defeats it and it is the one source of evil - then has she banished evil completely from the universe? This film is simply unequipped to deal with the complex moral and metaphysical ramifications of a young girl battling the embodiment of an abstract philosophical concept - this film just treats the Camazotz as something that kidnapped her father (for reasons unknown) and makes people everywhere sad. Hopefully the book does not operate in the same broad, oversimplified strokes this adaptation works with.
The fact that the screenplay has two just two annoying gears is not helpful: on-the-nose exposition or frustrating half speak. There are more artistic ways of convey plot information than just two minor characters just blurting out "I think the father ran off" or "that girl is a mess." Alternatively, the film could make the basic story elements a little less confusing by NOT having all-knowing characters speak exclusively in riddles. There's a happy median between artless exposition and puzzling jibberish - and "Wrinkle" is happy to live in the extremes.
Final verdict: "Wrinkle" is as ambitious as it is flawed. This fantasy misfire has a solid hero's journey - however little else about the fantastical worlds or characters it introduces works. Even basic story elements are confusing. And no well-intentioned film this fundamentally unsound can rise above its many flaws.
"A Wrinkle in Time" opens in theaters nationwide March 9. This fantasy science-fiction adventure has a running time of 109 minutes is rated PG for thematic elements and some peril.