August 14, 2014

The Giver

Son, I'm afraid this isn't another Tron sequel

Grade: C +
Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Tremblay
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

It’s easy to see why it took 17 years to get Lois Lowry’s best-selling 1993 YA novel The Giver on the silver screen. Instead of embracing the potential depth of its subject matter, the film adaptation co-produced by Jeff Bridges and directed by Phillip Noyce—both able filmmakers—is distilled down to a promising premise bookended by empty mythology on one side and convenient, magical-transformative malarkey on the other.

A pre-credits narration informs the audience that after “The Ruin,” humankind rebuilt society into a cluster of utopian “Communities” ruled by a council of Elders and their authoritarian chief (Meryl Streep). Memories of the past have been all but wiped out so society can begin anew. The weather is always good, the trees are fake, there aren’t any animals and no one carries a surname. Your family and occupation are predetermined. Citizens must dress alike and aren’t permitted to lie or use “imprecise language.” Mandatory morning meds keep everyone docile, emotionless and, yes, colorblind. And elderly citizens and deficient infants are “released to Elsewhere”—you don’t need to watch Logan’s Run to know what that means.

Wondering what The Ruin was and how humans were able—logistically and ethically—to develop these uber-planned communities? Don’t bother. The Giver doesn’t explicate such pesky details about its backstory. Instead, we glean them through the eyes of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), an 18-year-old tapped as the new Receiver of Memory. Jonas will telepathically inherit the entirety of human history and emotion from The Giver (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly elder living in an oversized library near the edge of the town.

As Jonas’ eyes are opened to the wonders of colors, snow, dancing, elephants and war, this carefully chosen Receiver immediately starts to crack like a cheap windshield. One of his only rules is to never share with others what he learns during training, so of course the first thing he does is tell his friends about what he’s learned during training. Jonas gets surly with his delegated parents (Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes) and wants to kiss doe-eyed girl-friend Fiona (Odeya Rush), to the dismay of Asher (Cameron Monaghan), whose unruly and jealous disposition is supposedly the sort of character flaw that gets ironed out by medication.

The Giver is blessed with the handsome cinematography of Ross Emery, who formerly directed photography for the Matrix trilogy and Dark World. The film’s early acts team with a youthful exuberance—conveyed using subtle jump cuts and off-angle shots—churning beneath a futurististic milieu muted by Emery’s black-and-white palette.

But once Jonas visits The Giver and color starts intruding on this sci-fi Pleasantville, the precarious plot starts to unravel. The Giver doesn’t want to just impart wisdom on Jonas, but also radicalize him into shaking up this dystopic Garden of Eden (including some subterfuge involving Fiona and an apple). And once Gabriel, a newborn future Receiver, is slated for “release,” Jonas decides that it’s finally time to go rogue.

Besides the contrivance of how it’s accomplished, it’s hard to accept that this meticulously engineered society could be so easily undone by one young boy and a baby going on a walkabout beyond some invisible border. Or that it hadn’t happened before Jonas came along.

Ultimately, the sense of Sameness plaguing the flawed utopia in The Giver afflicts its cinematic presentation. In the end, Jonas finds his Rosebud and a cabin echoing with Christmas carols. But viewers are left to mull an aftermath of Jonas’ journey as unexplained as everything before it. Maybe the audience needs its own Giver.

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