Monday, 7 May 2018

Movie Review: A Wrinkle In Time (2018)


The plot: After the unsolved disappearance of their father Alex (Chris Pine), Meg (Storm Reid), her adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and their mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are trying to carry on with their day-to-day lives. However, when Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg's friend Calvin (Levi Miller) are contacted by the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), they discover that not only is their father still alive, but that they have a chance to rescue him. They set off on an extradimensional voyage to rescue their father, while the IT prepares to stretch its dark tendrils across the universe.

Reid as our central character is easily the best physical presence to be found here. Getting across a very real sense of detachment and isolation from the world around her, that combined with the journey of personal discovery her character ostensibly undertakes make for a solid main performance. Shame the same can’t be said for pretty much anyone else here, as the rest of the cast seem to be tapping into a veritable rainbow spectrum of obnoxious behaviours. Levi Miller is basically the token of the film, and given how we have a more of an understanding of his diet than his personality by film’s end, I can’t help but think that this objectively progressive film would benefit from not trying to flip the script on past prejudices. McCabe is underwhelming as the overtly precocious child, but before too long, I end up missing that after his decidedly darker and woefully misjudged turn in the third act. Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium (get your groans out now, because it’s only going to get worse from here) is a plot-required dramatic throwaway and he plays it as such, Gugu Mbatha-Raw does decently as the mother, and Chris Pine’s casting here makes a little too much sense. He’s one of the more engaging presences on-screen, and yet the majority of the film is spent trying to get him to re-enter the film proper; it’s like the filmmakers knew that they needed this guy to keep things interesting.

And now, for the main event: The Holy Trinity of Nah Thanks that are the mystical Mrs. of the story, where the casting reaches Obnoxious Triumphant. Witherspoon comes across like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl grew up to be a yoga teaching mother-of-three, meaning that she somehow manages to hit annoying from two separate avenues. This isn’t helped by her delivery, which takes the already-wonky conceit of making a person aware of their faults in her dialogue and turning it into her being a Mean Girl in sheep’s clothing with how she interacts with Meg throughout most of their scenes together. Kaling, someone with a pretty solid history with Disney thanks to her turn in Inside Out, takes the irritation a step further by talking almost-exclusively in quotes. Some of them are classical, like Shakespeare and Ghandi, while others are more pop culture oriented, like Outkast and Chris Tucker from Friday. All she ends up showing is that the most poignant things this film has to say aren’t even unique to itself. Then there’s Oprah as what is essentially the goddess of this world in Mrs. Which, and between her more recent filmography and the cult of personality that surrounds her in the real world, I get the unfortunate feeling that this is an ego-stroking scenario in her casting here.

Then again, looking at this film’s thematic components, I’m willing to bet that ego wasn’t the only reason that Oprah signed onto this. The story takes a handful of New Age ‘the mind is the most powerful force in the universe’ mysticism and mixes it with another handful of wishy-washy attempts at astrophysics. This is the sort of Creationist fantasy concoction that goes into quite a few of these higher-reaching fantastical dramas, except this can’t even make its own mark with that formula. A lot of the bigger conceits of the film are ones that, much like Mrs. Who’s dialogue, we have already heard elsewhere. “The only thing that travels faster than light is the darkness” pulled right out of The Neverending Story 2, travelling across galaxies on the literal frequency of love like this is Star Wars meets Care Bears, even the tried-and-tested “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to violence” reductionist credo of the Star Wars prequels proper. What makes this worse is that these and many other examples of purely trite sentimentality are the clearest emotional points in the film. For the rest of it, the audience is given whispers in vague relation to self-confidence and selfless love, only without anything concrete to make it stick. This film clearly has a far better understanding of whimsy than poignancy.

Which absolutely shouldn’t be the case, just looking at the people responsible for putting this film together. The script was drafted up by Jennifer Lee, who had a hand in writing Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia and Frozen, three recent Disney efforts that actually landed on dramatic ground when they aimed for them. Then again, it’s also co-written by Jeff Stockwell, whose best-known work to date is the mishandled Bridge To Terebithia adaptation, so maybe the writing was compromised at some point. But then you look at the director here, Ava “My involvement in this film makes it a cultural landmark whether you like or not” DuVernay, and I can’t help but recoil at how off this feels compared to what got her here in the first place. Between Selma and 13th, she’s shown not only a definite sociopolitical salience but also some flexibility with format.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate too well here as we end up with a film that looks like it’s someone’s first experience with child-friendly CGI… largely, because it is. It hits standard whimsy when needed, even if that means it has to resort to giant-flying-lettuce-leaf-with-the-face-of-a-character-from-Fantasia-2000, but for a film that talks so much about “the darkness”, it certainly doesn’t show it. Obviously suspicious suburban pastels, wheat fields and overcrowded beaches are how DuVernay and DOP Tobias A. Schliessler (Hancock, Mr. Holmes, Patriots' Day) chose to portray Camazotz, a planet of pure darkness. Hell, even when we do get to visuals that look suitable for that type of locale, it just ends up looking like someone took the leftovers of Ego from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and drained all the colour out of it. Once again, the only time it gets close to doing something right is when it just directly lifts from other material.

All in all… I can’t even say that this is just underwhelming. I genuinely want to give this film some credit, beyond its immediately-historic existence considering the glass ceiling this shattered for women of colour in Hollywood. However, looking at the construction of this, I have no other choice to call this what it is: Derivative and embarrassingly devoid of merit. The acting is a string of irritating presences, only anchored by the jarringly-normal main performance from Storm Reid, the visuals highlight DuVernay’s inexperience with computer graphics in how garishly kid-friendly everything looks, and the writing tries to ingrain itself in this scientific/mystical cultural landscape, but only does so through lifting from other sources while contributing very little of its own worth. Knowing how Hollywood and mainstream cinema in general tends to take all the wrong lessons from even successful films, I really hope that higher-ups don’t take this as a sign that more women of colour in the director’s seat for tentpole productions = Laziness, theft and (most importantly) underperformance at the box office. This might be the most cynical I’ve gotten in a while, but let’s be honest: We’ve seen better filmmakers fall from the public eye for far dumber reasons. I just hope that DuVernay can bounce back from this.

This ranks lower than Pacific Rim: Uprising, as this goes beyond just being underwhelming and rather dull (which it definitely is) and goes into straight-up bad. I can’t even feel disappointed with this because, from the production outwards, I can’t even grasp how this was meant to work in the first place. At least Uprising had the precedent of a legitimately good film to launch off from, underperforming though it may be. However, as weak as this is in pretty much every regard, it still only gets to the point of half-hearted preachiness. The 15:17 To Paris went past that into properly heinous, largely because of that one scene where a stubborn mother ‘bravely’ declares that “[her] God is bigger than your statistics”. This is bad, but it’s not ‘echoing dangerous real-world mindsets’ kind of bad.

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