(Spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.)
For a long time it seemed as if every Science Fiction film had to have a “Stargate” sequence like 2001. Even a normally sensible director like Brian DePalma fell into the trap in Mission To Mars.
But it’s been a long time since I saw one. A very long time. So you can imagine that it seemed almost weirdly old fashioned when one of them showed up in a new movie — in this case, as a young girl “tessers” across the universe.
…I mean, has anyone else done that since the early Nothings?
But I do have to give them credit: somehow very few people really understood that Kubrick’s strange and harrowing sequence represented Dave Bowman evolving into godhood (in a material sort of way, but that’s the general idea). So it is noteworthy here that they used it to mark what can only be described as Meg Murray’s Apotheosis.
Not that I really think that they’re aware of the connection…
Now, as a matter of full disclosure, I should note that I deeply admire and love the original novel by Madeleine L’Engle. It is one of the best children’s novels of the past century, and one of the finest SF/Fantasy novels ever written for young readers. As a result, my expectations for a film adaptation are quite high — particularly since the version that was made for television over a decade ago was almost perfect, despite the limitations of a television budget.
However, this version had my (film critic) Spidey sense tingling long before I saw anything more than the first few dribbles of publicity, thanks to a photo that was used in some of the puff pieces: it’s bad when you pick what you think is the most impressive still shot you could use to advertise the film and it has serious perspective problems.
This is one of the major pitfalls of CGI: it is very hard to integrate a few actors on a tiny patch of green-screened stage in the midst of a vast scene. Although, considering how much Disney spent on this one they should have done a lot better.
But I think there may be a larger problem. CGI frequently looks flat. I have to wonder if it is something fundamental, a question of perspective: in the real world, straight lines may not be as straight as we think, an idea Escher played around with but never managed to turn into a print. And then there was the space art poster I remember from years ago, of a 2001-esque moon base (perhaps by Shusei Nagaoka), with a long row of multiple vanishing points, something which probably didn’t follow all the classic rules of perspective and yet looked right. Either way, a purely mathematical approach might not be enough to fool the human eye.
Whatever the case, I found myself uncomfortably aware, in the first of the endless series of vast panoramas in the film that are supposed to be awe inspiring, one could almost see the square outline of the sound stage against all the green fields. You could almost hear the director saying, “wow, this is impressive” in most of these scenes. Not that I’m saying that’s why they seemed so…dull.
Then one notes that it is always infernally bright and sunny wherever they go, even when they journey into the heart of darkness to the planet Camazotz. This was something the earlier version got right, portraying it as a constantly gray and overcast place — somehow it just isn’t the same when you turn that into a beach party.
A special note here is earned by the costume and production design: it all looks as if Tarsim had a pile of leftover production sketches for The Fall that weren’t good enough to make the final cut, and someone stole them to save money. In particular, the costume worn by Mrs. Who is extremely silly, although it isn’t so obvious until you see her trying to walk in it in a long shot. She can barely move. I kind of like the idea of the costume “Red” is wearing (although we know they must have had dressers adjusting it after every shot to get that effect!) but somehow one pictures the red-eyed man in a sober business suit (and I believe that’s the way Madeleine portrayed him).
Mind you, I suspect that we don’t have a shabby and untidy Mrs. Whatsit or a Mrs. Who in horn-rimmed glasses, as in the book, because the actresses playing them didn’t want to look frumpy. Although silly seems to have been just fine.
A grumpy comment about physics is in order as well. An aerofoil works because the air above it is moving faster than that below. Which also means that it is moving faster than the object itself. Which means, if you leap off the back of a giant flying leaf monster, your body may generate lift, like a skydiver’s, if you are going fast enough. But you will be doing so somewhere behind the leaf monster.
And I’m sorry, but an Oprah Winfrey the size of the Statue of Liberty does not produce awe.
Which brings us to the plot, and the changes they’ve made to the original story.
I could be charitable here and write it all off as supremely boring and leave it at that, but some of the major changes that were made to the characters can’t go unnoted.
It is part of the general dullness of things that they leave out the moment of pride that ends with Charles Wallace falling under the control of It (although I’m not sure in our day and age that too many people are willing to admit Pride is one of the deadly sins…). In fact, they seem to have left out most of the character dynamics of the original story. One just shrugs a bit when the jock, Calvin, is played by yet another post-Twilight, skinny, pale, slightly feminine boy with too much lipstick, who should probably be sparkling in all that bright light. Fashion, you know. But in the original, Calvin, like Charles Wallace is something new, Mankind 2.0, as someone put it. Here he just becomes an overachiever with an unloving, overdemanding Dad, and no particular reason for Charles Wallace to ask him along on the trip. But then, no one is allowed to be as smart or clever as Meg in this movie. Oh no.
Now, in the novel, Charles describes her as neither one nor the other, not normal and not new. The other two are far smarter than her, and Calvin is amused by how lopsided her mind is, excelling at math and science, but almost uninterested in everything else (although, in the age of STEM, I can understand how people might have a hard time understanding why lacking skills in the humanities is a bad idea).
But she triumphs where the other two fail, and for reasons that have nothing to do with her being a powerful warrior woman.
Now, I’m not sure what I find more disturbing about this one: that Disney would adapt a film by a noted Christian author and would deliberately excise any references to anything Christian, or that so many people would be tripping over themselves saying that that is perfectly understandable. But I have to admit, in context, that I’m glad that any Christian references were left out of one of the sequences that drew the most ire: in the book, when the three women explain about their fight against the darkness, there is a scene where they list some of the great warriors.
But here, instead of this being part of their pep talk, it is moved to the very end when Oprah tells Meg about all the great warriors — Einstein, Curie, etc., etc. — and now YOU!
The director is really into girl’s empowerment, which here seems to mean that no one else can be allowed to make any meaningful contributions to their quest, and that Meg is magically special, is smarter than anyone else in the story and only has to accept this to become goddess Meg.
Let’s face it: most of us are not magically special. There are plenty of people around who are better than us. We’re not going to become empowered by merely saying we’re important.
But we might triumph the way Meg triumphs, thanks to her love for her brother and the strength of her family bonds.
I hate to think how much Disney spent on this thing. But they would have done better just buying copies of the book and handing them out to theater goers. Or even of the graphic novel version Hope Larson just published.
Oh, well. The worst of it is that this means it is now virtually impossible for anyone to ever make a good version of this story.
Thank you Disney.
Buy or watch on Amazon:
Although you’d be better off getting either the novel:
Or Hope Larson’s graphic novel adaptation:
Or watching the 2004 TV version: