It was a dark and stormy night.
Meg Murry knows all about such nights. In a way, her life’s been an endless dark, stormy night for the last four years, ever since her father disappeared.
He never even said goodbye.
Maybe he couldn’t. The NASA scientist was working on something big—exploring the concept of the tesseract, a so-called “wrinkle in time” where space folds in on itself, allowing rapid transit between stars, constellations, maybe whole galaxies.
Perhaps Mr. Murry found a way to make the tesseract work. Perhaps he was sent by the government on a daring mission. Perhaps. Or perhaps Mr. Murry simply … left. Gossips speculate that Mr. Murry tired of his wife and children and deserted them.
For Meg, the reason doesn’t much matter. Her father’s gone, and she’s never been the same. She lashes out at school, fights with her classmates. She feels awkward and ugly and desperately unintelligent. On the anniversary of her father’s disappearance, someone sticks a note on her locker: “Happy anniversary,” it says. “If only you’d disappear too!”
Back at home, Meg goes downstairs and finds her younger brother, Charles Wallace, heating up milk. Always good to be prepared, he says. Sure enough, Meg’s mother soon comes down, and there’s enough milk for her, too. Then there’s a knock on the door.
In traipses a rather alarming red-haired woman wearing a gown made from, it appears, stolen sheets. She’s a strange one, she is, and a stranger to boot—a stranger to everyone, apparently, but young Charles Wallace. He calls her Mrs. Whatsit.
She visits for a spell, tossing off strange little sentences here and there, admitting that wild, stormy nights like this are her glory. But before she departs, she turns to Mrs. Murry and says, “By the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”
Then she’s gone, leaving the gaping Mrs. Murry behind.
Meg doesn’t know it just yet, but she’s just taken her first step on a galaxy-spanning adventure involving herself, Charles Wallace, a popular boy from school named Calvin and three of the strangest women Meg’s ever seen. If all goes well, they might just rescue Meg and Charles Wallace’s father. Oh, and save the universe while they’re at it.
But it won’t be easy: Many a dark and stormy night is on its way.
A Wrinkle in Time is a curious bird, an intimate tale of family told on a galactic canvas.
We’re told that Mrs. Whatsit and her two associates, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, are creatures of the light—celestial beings who battle darkness wherever they find it. But they do so with help: They mention that some of the greatest “warriors” against the darkness have come from Earth (rattling off names such as Einstein, Marie Curie and Gandhi), and these women would like Meg to join the fight now, too.
Meg, desperately insecure, initially doubts her role in this cosmic battle. But the plural “Mrs.” (as they’re called) encourage her to believe in herself—her inner beauty, her intelligence, her uniqueness. The wise Mrs. Which reminds Meg how improbable it is that she’s even here at all—how many events throughout the ages had to come together to make Meg “just exactly the way you are.” They encourage her to marshal not just her strengths, but her faults. Even her pain can become a catalyst for growth and hope, they say.
The tesseract, we eventually learn, is launched through love. Curiously, Mr. Murry makes this breakthrough as he watches his wife and adopted son, Charles Wallace, through a window—catalyzing the tesser that, seconds later, rips him away from his family. Elsewhere during the movie, Meg’s love for her family—first for her father, then for Charles Wallace—literally pulls her toward them, always at great risk to herself. And while I don’t want to give away too much, this film is suggests love is indeed the greatest power in the universe.
We also witness some nice family moments and hear some affirming messages about adoption. And the movie sprinkles plenty of wise little adages throughout. For instance:
“Love is always there, even if you don’t feel it,” Meg’s dad tells her.
“Of course, we can’t take any credit for our talents,” Mrs. Whatsit says. “It’s how we use them that counts.”
“It’s OK to fear the answers, Meg,” someone called the Happy Medium says. “But you can’t avoid ’em.”
I could go on, but it’s time to go on with the review.
Those who’ve read Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time may remember that, while not an explicitly Christian story (and Jesus, some argue, is put on a par with other secular and religious leaders), it contains a considerable level of Christian thought. L’Engle regularly quotes the Bible throughout that book.
Alas, most of those explicit references have been torn away here, replaced (at least superficially) with a certain unmoored spiritual tang.
Mrs. Who (who speaks mainly through other people’s words) quotes Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, who was raised as a Christian but who also was influenced by Sufi Islamic mysticism. She quotes Buddha and the Islamic poet Rumi, too: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Mrs. Who emphasizes that God made us unique for a reason, and she says that pain can be an instrument for growth that can help marshal our apparent weaknesses for good.
To locate Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, the Happy Medium leads the children and the three Mrs. in a mystical, yoga-like ceremony. These elements, along with oft-repeated exhortations to “believe in yourself” and to embrace “oneness with the universe” could leave viewers with a New Age-y aftertaste.
That does not appear to be the creators’ intention, according to Wrinkle in Time producer Jim Whitaker, though they were aiming to make the film more inclusive. The filmmakers wanted the book’s spiritual themes to be “reflected widely in the movie for people of all faiths to be able to see themselves in it,” Whitaker told me.
We also see telekinetic forces are at work, and one character can apparently read minds well enough to see everyone’s innermost fears. Mrs. Who’s glasses have a bit of mystical power in them, as well.
Calvin and Meg are attracted to one another, but the closest we get to them being a “thing” (apart from a few lingering looks) is a hug here, some hand-holding there and a few compliments regarding Meg’s hair. Mr. and Mrs. Murry kiss, with each expressing love for the another.
We hear vague speculation that Mr. Murry “disappeared” with another woman. A beach scene includes some women in bikinis and shirtless guys. Mrs. Whatsit and the Happy Medium are an item, though Whatsit says that, after a billion years, they avoid labels. (They compliment each other on their outfits, and Whatsit calls the Happy Medium “cute.”)
Meg suffers the brunt of the movie’s sometimes perilous battering. She’s hoisted, pulled and thrown about by strange vines or tendrils. She and Calvin initially flee what seems to be a sentient storm, but then climb into a hollow tree trunk so that the storm (which transforms into a mighty tornado) can hurl them over a gigantic wall. Meg has trouble tessering, too, often coming out of this curious state of travel in serious pain and unable to move. (Mrs. Whatsit kicks her once afterwards, to confirm that she’s still alive.) She and others get pulled down a dark hallway by some unseen force.
Meg smacks someone in the face with a basketball. (Her mother later instructs her to write an apology letter.) Calvin falls from an incredible height, saved from certain death by sentient wildflowers. A character seems to sport glowing cracks in his face for a time, for some reason. The entity IT is referenced once as “the Happy Sadist.”
A dark evil is infiltrating Earth, causing many problems: One girl suffers from an eating disorder (her “eating rules” are posted on a bedroom wall). Calvin’s father berates him for a poor report card, calling him an “idiot.” Ruffians make fun of an apparently homeless guy and rifle through his stuff. Children sometimes talk back to authority figures (though the movie does not encourage that behavior), and Meg walks out on her principal.
It’s not easy to make a movie of such a beloved—and such a weird—children’s book. Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 classic has resisted efforts at cinematic translation for decades, and perhaps it was foolhardy for anyone to try. But give this Disney movie’s makers credit. Boy, did they try.
Producer Jim Whitaker told me that the production, led by director Ava DuVernay, “swung for the fences, I think in every department and every way.” And A Wrinkle in Time is indeed an incredibly daring movie. As Disney has been doing since Snow White, the studio bought the story and used it as the basis for the story it wanted to tell, leaving some of the book’s characters, scenes, themes and even feel on the cutting room floor.
The result is a bit of a messy tesseract itself.
The narrative here, while visually stunning, zooms from scene to scene with barely a reason and nary a structure, dropping us off on strange planets feeling breathless and unmoored. Sometimes things just don’t make much sense.
And the decision to strip the book’s Christian elements is mystifying to me, given the weight those elements have in the novel. It’s obvious that for L’Engle, those Christian echoes were part of the point. To excise the movie of explicit Christian allusions robs the story of some of its power, the very themes that made the novel so resonant to begin with.
At one juncture in the L’Engle’s story, for example, Dr. Murry gives Meg this exhortation, quoting Romans 8:28: “We were sent here for something,” he says. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.”
Contrast that with what I think is the film’s final line: “I believe in me.” Hey, it’s good to believe in yourself and all. But in comparison to the book’s clear Christian themes, the movie’s message feels overly light and perhaps a bit dispiriting.
And the thing is, DuVernay knows how to handle explicit faith elements in film. She did so masterfully in Selma, which focused on a critical moment in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s career. King’s Christian faith wasn’t an afterthought in Selma: It was central to the protagonist’s character and motivation, and I don’t think that anyone was offended by it. As it is, Disney’s attempt to be inoffensive may, ironically, offend those who could’ve been the movie’s biggest supporters: fans of the books and Christians.
But for a minute, let me set aside what the movie could’ve been and concentrate on what the movie is. And that movie is, at least in terms of its core messages, pretty good.
Meg is a wonderful, charismatic young heroine who pushes through her anxieties and insecurities not only to save her father, but to save the universe, too. This quest pits her and the forces of light—of truth and freedom and above all, love—against a dark entity that, like Satan, twists and contorts those values into something almost unrecognizable, something that uses our heroes’ own doubts and fears against them. The film shows us a family that’s both caring and broken, and it allows us to see how much they love each other even when they’re sometimes at their most unlovable. Maybe most importantly, A Wrinkle in Time still points, albeit in more subtle ways than the book, to timeless Christian truths: We are loved. We were made for a reason. As insignificant as we sometimes feel, we have purpose.
A Wrinkle in Time is no masterpiece. But it still has a wrinkle or two of its own that families can unpack and discuss. And that’s a wrinkle I can live with.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.