Father finders: a raider of tombs and a wrinkler of time

Storm Reid is Meg Murry in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME, an epic adventure based on Madeleine L’Engle’s timeless classis.

 

Father finders: a raider of tombs and a wrinkler of time

by Bill Stamets

Brave daughters undertake quests to find their missing fathers in “Tomb Raider” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” Seekers of an empowering role model will find her here. One film dabbles in magico-cosmo-theology. The other muses on it by zooming around the universe.

Very far from home, dearly missed fathers are found by daughters overcoming fantastic obstacles. Twenty-one year-old Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander)– in “Tomb Raider” directed by Roar Uthaug (“The Wave”)– decodes clues to locate the tomb of Japan’s legendary Queen Himiko in order to thwart the “Order of Trinity, an ancient militant organization that seeks control over the supernatural to rule the fate of mankind.” Eighth-grader Meg Murry (Storm Reid)– in “A Wrinkle in Time” directed by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”)– navigates a 91 billion light year fold in space-time to fight “a purely evil energy, known simply as the It, … an evil that’s actively spreading throughout the universe.”

“Tomb Raider” is a descendant of a 1996 video game of the same name. Fourteen more versions followed, according to Wikipedia. I cannot say I played any of them. Never watched a 2007 web series of ten animated shorts. Press notes for the present film fail to mention two prior feature films: “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001) and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider– The Cradle of Life” (2003). Both starred Angelina Jolie playing an older Lara Croft brandishing an ironic grin along with high-tech arms.

We meet the Lara Croft of 2018 losing a sparring match at a mixed martial arts gym where she’s behind in her fees. This East London bike courier cannot accept that her father, wealthy widower Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), might have died during his mysterious absence, now in its seventh year. She cannot bring herself to sign a Declaration of Death in Absentia and thereby inherit Croft Holdings and Croft Manor.

On the verge of finally inking her signature, Lara instead opens a Japanese puzzle box her father left her. Inside is an old snapshot of them together. And there’s a note leading her to the Croft family mausoleum, under which she finds her father’s hidden research workshop. Thanks to a SONY camcorder with a battery that hold its charge for seven years, Richard instructs Lara to destroy his Himiko files. She does not. She looks through that box, finds an invoice from a sea captain, flies to Hong Kong.

Lara finds that captain’s son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu). His father also disappeared seven years ago, after an attempted voyage with Lara’s father to the legendary island hiding the legendary tomb of the legendary Queen Himiko. After a glance at a snapshot of himself with his father, Lu Ten decides to take Lara’s money and take her there. En route we hear notes Richard recorded on his tape recorder, and see charts and sketches from his notebook. Perils ensue.

Lara’s action scenes are brutalizing. The MPAA rates “Tomb Raider” PG-13 “for sequences of violence and action, and for some language.” First is her fierce gym fight where she taps out of a headlock. Then a bike chase injures her. In Hong Kong she deals with a trio of young thugs. Currents and reefs smash Lu Ren’s vessel upon Yamatai Island, which is not so legendary after all. Lara and Lu Ten are captured by heavily armed multinational thugs employed by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, who is great at popping his eyes toward green screens). He says he killed their fathers.

For seven years, a Trinity subcontractor or subsidiary has tasked Vogel– using dynamite and slave labor– to find Himiko’s tomb and bring back her super, if not truly supernatural, weapon. Shots of a framed photo of Vogel’s two daughters tell us he really, really wants to finish this and go home.

Although their hands are bound, Lara and Lu Ten spearhead a slave revolt. She flees through the jungle, leaps off a cliff, plunges into a torrential river, grabs ahold of a rusty WWII bomber at the brink of a waterfall, parachutes into more jungle, and then kills her tracker with a headlock. An attack on Vogel’s camp to steal a satellite phone takes an unexpected turn when Vogel puts a gun to the head of none other than Lord Richard Croft, an evasive semi-crazed cave-dweller on the island for the past seven years. The plot delivers a revisionist twist to Himiko’s resume and a lot of action inside the raided tomb, much in debt to Indiana Jones films.

The London ending points to a sequel. Her father once warned: “Trinity is everywhere.” As Croft executive Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas) reminds Lara: “Just think what you can do for the world, with your potential, with your wealth.” At a pawn shop Lara arms herself with more than headlock, looks into the lens, and grins. Cue end credits of this diversion distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.

The only idea entertained by screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, with the story credited to Evan Daugherty and Robertson-Dworet, touches on an out-of-date debate about myth versus truth, magic versus science by British anthropologists.

 


The Croft crypt contains Lady Amelia Croft, 1964–1998. In his video to Lara, her father reveals her death inspired a quest: “I began searching the world, desperate for a hint of another realm, for proof the supernatural, anything to feel her with me again.”

The grief-struck widower’s research detoured to Queen Himiko: “a powerful sorceress who ruled through dark magic, spreading death and destruction through the mere touch of her hand… entombed beneath a mountain.” He vows to stop Trinity: “If Vogel opens that tomb, Himiko’s curse will be unleashed on the world.” “If it fell into the wrong hands, it could be catastrophic.” He foresees “genocide.”

In a flashback to Croft Manor, 14-year-old Lara shoots arrows at an apple. Richard cites a Swiss archer of old. “William Tell was a myth, dad,” corrects Lara. “Well, all myths have foundation in reality,” he counters. Richard’s point is underscored when that line recurs later in an audio montage.

Vogel is inconsistent. He believes the Queen’s tomb and touch are real enough to excavate for Trinity, yet he taunts the Crofts: “[T]he difference between myth and reality, Richard, something you could never understand.” Entering the tomb, the raiders notice a pulse of air. “She’s still breathing,” marvels Richard. “Or a change in atmospheric pressure,” cracks Vogel. Opening the coffin, they are taken aback when the queen’s corpse sits up. Vogel points to the gears and levers beneath her: “See? Smoke and mirrors.”

Vogel doubts Lara could ever “believe this nonsense.” She interprets ancient paintings inside the tomb that revise the demonized image of Queen Himiko as a deadly vector. Unsophisticated epidemiologists, her contemporaries had turned to the supernatural. “They thought it was magic,” divines Lara.

“A Wrinkle in Time” admits no ambiguity to its big picture, albeit one populated with supernatural-seeming beings. Not from Earth, they are nonetheless totally real. Einstein explains nearly everything in this fantasy adventure from Walt Disney Studios that’s rated PG “for thematic elements and some peril” by the MPAA. An ambiguous agenda in the film’s Cold War era source novel, however, does not make its way to the screen.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) will leap instantaneously across the cosmos accompanied by her adopted younger brother Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe) and her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller). The threesome’s kindly enablers are Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling). Mr. Which, Mr. Whatsit and Mr. Who are elsewhere, if they exist.

Although the young adult novel by Madeleine L’Engle once mentions a “time wrinkle” coupled with a “space wrinkle,” the 1962 book and 2018 film titled “A Wrinkle in Time” are actually about their characters traveling through space, not in time.

Four years ago to the day, as a television newscaster tells us, Mr. Murry (Chris Pine) mysteriously vanished in an attempt to “travel the universe with his mind.” How? The NASA theoretical physicist theorized: “Tap into the right frequency.” How far? Approximately 91 billion light years. That distance is inexplicably downscaled to 92 million light years in the press notes from Walt Disney Studios.

Meg’s mom, Mrs. Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is a biophysicist: “I’m mostly interested in the small atoms, particles, the unseeable energies that move through us all.” Together, Meg’s parents discovered “tessering,” a fifth-dimensional mind-based way to transit the universe via a “tesseract” without a spacecraft or supernatural tricks. Before her maiden voyage Meg is assured: “Tessering is almost nearly perfectly natural.” (To wrinkle is to tesser in the vocabulary of this story.)

“Your father has done an extraordinary thing,” Mrs. Which advises Meg. “No human has ever traveled so far out in the universe. But he may be in danger and we’re here to help you find him.”

Why do these three eccentrics– peculiarly capable of materializing and dematerializing– want to help out? “Because that’s what we do,” brightly offers Mrs. Whatsit. “We’re warriors who serve the good and the light in the universe… Think of us as big-hearted.”

DuVernay’s screen adaption of L’Engle’s novel traces Meg’s evolution from a dispirited, detention-prone outcast at James Baldwin Middle School, to a bold selfless cosmic do-gooder. Her superpower of sorts is her love that lets her rescue her father imprisoned on the planet Comazotz, and to free her brother from the awful soul-stealing It voiced by David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” L’Engle variously describes It as IT, the Thing, the Dark Thing and the Black Thing.

Reunited with Meg– nicknamed Megatron and Megaparsec by her dad in the book– Dr. Murry in the film apologizes for prioritizing science over parenthood: “I wanted to shake hands with the universe but I should have been holding yours.”

“A Wrinkle in Time” devotes more narrative space-time to detailing emotion and evil than does “Tomb Raider.” Lara Croft self-actualizes just a smidgen in her character arc. Her nemesis Trinity is thinly drawn. Its counterpart in the 2001 film was the Illuminati.

Mrs. Which schools Meg on the insidious intergalactic shadow: “You see, this is what the It does, one person at a time, until fear takes over, fear turns to rage, rage leads to violence, and then there’s a tipping point. If we do not act soon, Darkness will fall across the universe. We’re in search of warriors who can fight the It. Who can bring hope back.”

“Some of our the best warriors have come from Earth,” Meg is told. Her brother makes a guess: “`Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. `Why of course, Jesus!’ `Of course!’ Mrs. Whatsit said.” That exchange in the novel is not in the film. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell drop the son of God from L’Engle’s pantheon of Earth’s prior warriors.

Only one woman is named the 1962 book: Madame Curie, the Nobel Prize winner who coined the term “radioactivity.” L’Engle added Mother Theresa, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Day when Scholastic magazine students asked for more recent “light-bearers,” according to an undated transcript.

Curie is joined in the film by “[Frida] Kahlo… Maya Angelou and now Meg Murry.” Mrs. Which lauds Meg: “the universe is right tonight because of you.”

The screenplay leaves out a scene in L’Engle’s book where Calvin strains to explain to an alien trio of “Things” what sort of beings Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit are. “`Angels!’ Calvin shouted… `Guardian angels!’… he shouted again… `Messengers! Messengers of God!’”

Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit bestow a higher purpose on Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin. “This is where we leave you,” says Mrs. Which. “To become warriors on Earth.” The three kids and Mr. Murry all tesser homeward. They land in the Murry’s back yard.

Grown up Meg and Calvin are scientists with seven children in a 1965 novel by L’Engle.

Christian parents in Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas objected to public schools assigning fiction they deemed religiously incorrect.

“Attention parents… After page 64 this book is 90 percent occult… Demand that it be taken out of our schools. Do it now for the sake of your children and future sixth and seventh graders,” exhorted Kathleen Hollop of Wappingers Falls in her letter printed in The Poughkeepsie Journal on December 3, 1987. In her January 1, 1988 letter she asked: “Who do you want your children to serve– God or Satan?”

People for the American Way ranked “A Wrinkle in Time” one of “11 Top targets in 1990-91” in its survey of attempts to take books out of public schools. The novel also appeared on two lists compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association: “100 Most frequently challenged books” in 1990–1999 and “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books” in 2000–2009.

Calvin College prof Donald Hettinga reported in Christianity Today: “[L]ibrarians in Christian schools and churches handle her books as though they carried dangerous heresies, sometimes relegating them to back shelves where patrons must ask specifically for them, and sometimes banning them altogether.”

“Banners have a tiny, controllable little God and they’re terrified that God might be bigger, more exciting, wilder,” L’Engle told the Associated Press in 1993. Claris Van Kuiken penned a 1996 exposé titled “Battle to Destroy Truth, Unveiling a Trail of Deception” that accused L’Engle of lacing her prose “with a pinch of rat poison.” In 2017 she still maintained: “L’Engle’s novels… are spiritual poison for children, precisely because they are considered `Christian.’”

L’Engle tuned in a radio show attacking her and related: “It was a very strange sensation to listen to a spewing out of hate, a septic vilification of me and everything I believe. My response was instinctively visceral, as though someone were plunging a knife in my intestines and twisting it.”

Evangelicals attacked L’Engle for her alleged New Ageism, Christological deconstruction and allegiance to a doctrine called “open theism.” An Anglican, she explained her intent for “A Wrinkle in Time” to the National Catholic Reporter in 1986: “It’s based on Einstein’s theory of relativity and Planck’s quantum theory. It’s good, solid science, but also it’s good, solid theology. My rebuttal to the German theologians [who] attack God with their intellect on the assumption that the finite can comprehend the infinite, and I don’t think that’s possible.”

L’Engle reflected on her path of faith in a 1972 memoir: “I found myself explaining to the young minister that I did not believe in God, ‘but I’ve discovered that I can’t live as though I didn’t believe in him.’” In a 1986 book she wrote: “Jesus… is God’s show and tell” and told an interviewer that same year: “The Bible is… a magnificent story book. It doesn’t give any answers, it just tells more stories.”

Passages of scripture recited by Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit are italicized in the book, although L’Engle never cites Biblical chapter and verse. And when Meg must block It from brainwashing her, she “shouted” the Declaration of Independence and the Periodic Table of the Elements as if they were incantations to counter against cosmic evil. Inasmuch as It is depicted as an totalitarian entity, not Satan, maybe patriotism and physics are apt ordnance.

L’Engle attended Episcopalian services and served as a volunteer librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. A PBS interviewer asked her in 2000 if she was a Christian writer and she answered: “No. I am a writer. That’s it. No adjectives. The first thing is writing. Christian is secondary.”

L’Engle’s tertiary thing might be an early sixties zeitgeist marked by Sputnik upset, Communism phobia and conformity panic. DuVernay’s film omits a political theme prominent in L’Engle’s book. Unlike religious errancy, the writer’s ideological bent might have struck readers as unambiguous, so she triggered critics on neither the right nor the left.

When the American Library Association awarded its John Newbery Medal to “A Wrinkle in Time” L’Engle gave an acceptance speech on July 15, 1963 at a banquet during the organization’s annual conference in Chicago. She cautioned against a Sputnik-provoked curriculum that denied American children access to imaginative literature: “There are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin.”

That folksy metaphor of packaged baked goods evokes “Little Boxes,” a song written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962 and popularized by Pete Singer the next year. The lefty folk singer also recorded Reynolds’ ban-the-bomb lament “What Have They Done to the Rain?”

Collective de-individualizing groupthink is targeted in “Little Boxes.” Southern California suburban tract housing inspired Reynolds’ refrain: “Little boxes all the same… And they all look the same.” Middle-class routines of school, college, white-collar career, home ownership, marriage and children are satirized from a liberal angle.

The Murry family hardly dwells in a Little Box. Dr. Murry is a maverick at NASA. The book supplies more detail about his government employment in a top-secret tesseract project at Cape Canaveral. “Certainly we weren’t the only nation to investigate along that line,” he informs Meg. “But we did try very hard not to let it be known abroad that we were trying to make it practicable,” adding “there was no way to try it out ahead with rats or monkeys or dogs.” He was the second tesser-enabled traveler. The first was lost in space-and-time. L’Engle is clearly referring to the U.S. competing with the U.S.S.R. to launch satellites– then identified as “artificial”– in the Cold War “space race.”

Over many pages, the book describes Comazotz as an extra-terrestrial Communist hell run by the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Agency. In the chapter titled “The Man with Red Eyes,” Prime Coordinator (named “Red” and played by Michael Pena in the film) eyes Charles Wallace and claims: “I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility.”

In a matter of blinks, the boy is hypnotized and brainwashed. Telepathically he is forced to channel It’s pitch: “On Comazotz we are all happy because we are all alike… Complete equality. Everybody’s exactly alike… You see, on this planet everything is in perfect order because everybody has learned to relax, to give in, to submit… on Comazotz individuals have been done away with. Comazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT.”

An unlucky boy out of sync with robot-like boys in his homogenous neighborhood is re-educated through painful conditioning. “After today he’ll never desire to deviate again,” comments Charles Wallace approvingly. “IT sometimes calls Itself the Happiest Sadist,” he “giggle[s].” Social engineering includes euthanasia: “[W]e have conquered all illness, all deformity… We let no one suffer. It is so much kinder simply to annihilate anyone who is ill… Rather than endure such discomfiture they are simply put to sleep.”

Life under It is a tyranny of mind and body. Yet some passages could be read as a beat-era critique of conformity– befitting a one-time denizen of Greenwich Village who set her first published novel in that bohemian enclave. My alternate take may be irrelevant to the novel’s initial reception. Did the book’s anti-Soviet message elicit no objections in 1963?

I see “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” directed by Don Siegel, as social commentary open to similar interpretations. This 1956 science fiction film was based on Jack Finney’s story “The Body Snatchers” serialized by Colliers Magazine in 1954. Big pods from outer space fall on fields near a small California town. As residents sleep, they are duplicated overnight by goo in nearby pods. Outwardly looking like the original, the dupe lacks all its individuality. Pod people are pacified. No emotions. Mind-controlled, they dutifully do the bidding of the invaders and dispatch truckloads of pods throughout the country.

Is this an anti-Red allegory? Or does the film subvert that exegesis with a different alarmist agenda? “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is arguably a paranoid diagnosis of a country losing its individuality, humanity and liberty to conformity. The U.S. is doing this to itself. There’s no need to accuse outsiders.

“Communism is struggling for the minds of men while we have been sleeping,” stated the film’s producer, Walter Wanger. Finney denied he ever wrote “a cold war novel, or a metaphor for anything.” The film is “neither anti-Communist nor anti-anti-Communist,” writes Wanger biographer Matthew Bernstein. He quotes contributing uncredited screenwriter Richard Collins: “It wasn’t either of those things, believe me.” Once a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and Communist Party, Collins was blacklisted until he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.

“Tomb Raider” is unambiguously free of big ambiguities. There’s merely Vogel’s cognitive dissonance of simultaneously believing and disbelieving that Queen Himiko is a supernatural weapon of mass death. The film “A Wrinkle in Time” delivers uplift minus bookish thoughts about Christianity and conformity.

The book and film sharing the title “A Wrinkle in Time” express a relatable sentiment: daughters love their dads. L’Engle and DuVernay dedicate their respective works to their respective fathers. Lara Croft would no doubt dedicate one of her efforts to Lord Richard Croft if Croft Holdings invests in a sequel and her executive producer perks include dedicating the film.

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