In one of A Wrinkle In Time‘s establishing scenes, Chris Pine’s Dr. Alex Murry stands on a stage, flanked by his wife, Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), explaining to a gathering of scientists that the bonds between the electrons that make up our bodies are the same as the bonds between the electrons that make up entire galaxies. That you are the universe and the universe is you, and if we can just “find the right frequency,” we’ll be able to create a “wrinkle in time,” allowing us to travel “91 billion light years” using “nothing but our minds.”
The doctors Murry are rightly laughed out of the room. When they get home, Kate is furious at Alex for not explaining it better. But Alex Murry, it turns out, is right about the space travel. And yet the movie’s explanation for how he travels those 91 billion light years never gets any clearer than Alex’s initial, laughable presentation. In fact, forget the how, the movie never bothers explaining where, or even why he wants to go. The closest it gets to the how is Dr. Murry in a flashback saying, out loud, and to himself, “Love, that’s the frequency!” The closest it gets to the why is Dr. Murry telling his daughter “I wanted to shake hands with the universe… when the hand I should’ve been holding was yours.”
I simply cannot… deal with this level of meaningless platitude.
The film began (after commercials for Disney Channel kids and American Idol) with a personalized message from director Ava DuVernay. She said she hoped that her movie would make us feel like our 11, 12, 13-year-old selves, and be a beacon of hope in these divisive times. I was immediately worried. Nine times out of 10, someone exhorting you to be more childlike, to be more innocent, to focus more on the positive, is full of shit. “Don’t be so negative” is the mantra of smarm. But I was a huge fan of Selma, a movie that made some bold and unexpected creative choices in a normally excruciatingly conventional genre, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
As the movie went on, much as I tried to do like she said, I couldn’t shake the feeling that 12-year-old me, 11-year-old me, any me old enough for me to remember me, really, would’ve hated this movie. We open with Alex doing some kind of science experiment with our protagonist, Meg (Storm Reid), before telling her she’s about to have a baby brother. Flash forward four years and Meg is an unhappy pre-teen living with her mother and her precocious brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) in what looks like upper-middle-class Los Angeles.
It’s never explained why Charles Wallace has two first names, but apparently he’s a gifted student, and also wears sweater vests over oxford shirts to school, has a perfect newscaster part in his hair, and seems to deliver every line in an over-caffeinated half-shriek. People are always telling Meg to be more like Charles-Wallace, which is weird because Charles-Wallace is incredibly annoying. But A Wrinkle In Time values “positivity” over anything else.
One of the best things about Lady Bird was that the teens looked like teens. Lady Bird had stringy hair and skin that was a little greasy and everyone generally looked like they hadn’t figured it out yet. That’s one of the defining features of childhood, not having it figured out yet. Like every Disney Channel sitcom from the late aughts, the kids in A Wrinkle In Time all look like they have professional stylists. They’re not kids, but adults’ weirdly fetishized notions of kids. And DuVernay is always shooting them with claustrophobic intimacy, heroic shots of their clear eyes nobly scanning horizons.
Meanwhile, Meg’s father, the aforementioned Dr. Murry, has disappeared, presumably on some astral journey. Meg is still crushed over his absence, and naturally, the school bully chooses that wound to pour salt in, to the point of leaving a note on her locker that says “I wish it was you that disappeared.”
Even the initially sympathetic school principal (the always excellent André Holland) seems wildly insensitive, telling Meg maybe she should just face up to the fact that her dad is never coming back and stop being such a crabby pants. Not bothering inventing plausible bullies is another hallmark of a bad movie. Is the real world really so bereft of natural conflict that we have to pretend that a kid would get bullied for having a dead or missing parent? It’s an obnoxious shorthand, a way to say “Look, there are bullies, okay?” without having to introduce a new plot point or wrinkle.
The whole movie is like this. It’s not that it has clichés. Lady Bird had plenty of clichés. It’s that it never even bothers to personalize them. It’s like tone without lines, a paint-by-numbers painting without the paint.
“The Missus” eventually show up from some other galaxy — Mrs. Which (Oprah), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling). They’ve arrived because of some galactic distress beacon to teach Meg, along with her obnoxious brother and proto boyfriend Calvin (Levi Miller), a One Direction song come to life who constantly tells Meg she’s perfect the way she is and has obnoxiously perfect prepubescent Luke Perry hair, how to use the Tesseract to travel across the universe and find her dad.
The secret, they relate, is to “become one with the universe.” The trouble with finding dad, meanwhile, is that he’s trapped by “The It,” which we’re told is a “purely evil energy.”
Now, I’m sure a lot of the talk of space-time and parallel dimensions wouldn’t hold up to a physicist’s scrutiny, but I accepted it. But how can an “energy” be “purely evil?” What does that even mean? Energy is just energy.
Basically, the entire movie consists of The Missus chiding Meg, and by extension, us, to be more positive, in order to defeat a pernicious, but entirely vague negativity. This comes partly from a tradition of Disney films, which have long told us that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
But the corollary to that is, don’t tell me to cheer up or be positive if you can’t think of a reason for me to cheer up or think of an example of something I should be positive about. Yes, it feels snarky to say so, but as Tom Scocca wrote in his 2013 essay on smarm, snark is a theory of cynicism. Smarm is its practice.
Without any substrate for the positivity or the negativity, A Wrinkle In Time is just a series of free-floating affirmations. Though adapted from a beloved 1962 children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle, it feels like The Secret for kids, or like being trapped inside some SuccessWinBro’s inspirational daily LinkedIn quotes. It’s Disney faux cheer meets Oprah’s cult of self-actualization. Once I’m happy just for the sake of it, then what?
Mindy Kaling’s character, in fact, we’re told has “evolved beyond the point of speech.” Which means that she instead converses entirely in inspirational quotes, cribbed from everyone from Rumi (“The wound is the place where the light enters you”) to Shakespeare to Outkast. Oh, also, she attributes her quotes (“Buddha, Nepali”).
Her character is much like the movie itself, giving us a string of disconnected mumbo jumbo about positivity and love and becoming one with the universe without ever offering a hint as to what that might actually mean. A few times Oprah exhorts Meg to “be a warrior.” Which seems to involve… positivity? Believing in herself? I’m not sure.
Much was made of the fact that Ava DuVernay was the first black woman to direct a $100 million budgeted feature, and she called it “a love letter to black girls.” But if anything, the trouble with Wrinkle is that you never really get a sense of DuVernay’s personal touch. In fact, it feels a lot like Brad Bird’s big budget, equally smarmy 2015 Disney film, Tomorrowland. Both attempt to be so broad and universal that they feel disconnected from anything human. But universality doesn’t work that way, no matter how much you tell everyone to think like a kid. Don’t try to tell me everyone’s worries, that will just be a series of lies and assumptions. Just tell me yours. You’d think a company with a mouse for a logo would realize that the key to inspiring people is to start small.