Mark Reviews Movies

The Giver


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Phillip Noyce

Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence)

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 8/15/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 14, 2014

We get the dystopia we deserve. When we hold security over individual liberties, we get detention facilities, local police decked out in military gear, and full-body scanners at the airport. When we hold complete economic freedom over even the most commonsense of regulation, we get corporate and financial malfeasance with no foreseeable stop to it. When we pride ourselves on personal wealth, we get huge gaps in class. The Giver suggests that the need for a dystopia against which to tell a story is enough of a reason for one.

It's not that the screenplay by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Wiede (based on the book by Lois Lowry) doesn't give us an understanding of this futuristic society. In voice-over, the protagonist gives us its five primary rules at the start (no lying, use of precise language, politeness, etc.). We learn that everyone's memories have been cleared of any time before the establishment of this society. There are security cameras everywhere. Every morning, people receive injections that eliminate emotions. After graduating from unseen schooling, each citizen is assigned one of a handful of jobs.

We hear its leader celebrating the "sameness" of every individual, as concepts such as race, color, and creed have been eliminated (Of course, the whole monologue about this is directed to the audience as a means of exposition, given that the citizens of this place have no concept of such things). We get hints and, later, confirmation of the mass murder—referred to as the "releasing"—of people who have reached a certain age and physically "inferior" babies.

In other words, everything here is portrayed in broad strokes. There's no attempt to delve any deeper than the surface. Any of the obvious questions—specifics about how and why this social order came to be, how it actually works, and who really benefits and in what way—are not even considered. It exists, as stated before, because the narrative needs it to.

Even the movie's aesthetic is simplified. In early scenes, director Phillip Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery present this world in rather inelegant grayscale. Like the presentation of this society itself, the look simply does its job without any further consideration. The absence and, as the hero begins to free himself from the ways of this world, gradual addition of color are what matter. The movie isn't even consistent in that regard, retaining color in scenes involving only characters who have not had the protagonist's revelation.

The point is clear: This world is a bland one. From the movie's look to the screenplay's robotic dialogue to the glassy-eyed performances, the establishing act of the movie gets that point across quiet clearly. The problem is how the movie remains flat as the protagonist shakes free of the bonds of this world.

At some point in the future, a group of people have isolated themselves on a rocky plateau surrounded by climate-controlled clouds. There are several "communities" on the rock, and the sight of these expanding circles of civilization—connected in a pattern but still distinct from each other—is one of the movie's few striking images.

In one of these communities is Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who is about to graduate along with his best friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). At the ceremony where newborns are recognized, graduates receive their jobs, and the elderly are shipped off to "Elsewhere," the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), appearing via hologram, announces that Jonas has been chosen to become the Receiver of Memories. The current Keeper of Memories, known only as The Giver (Jeff Bridges), explains that Jonas will one day be charged with providing guidance to the Elders based on memories of the past—memories that only he will possess.

The Giver shares these memories—of humanity before the creation of this society—with Jonas by the two grasping each other's forearms (There's no explanation for how this works, of course). Jonas receives vibrantly colored visions of sledding down a snowy hill (an act he repeats with Fiona using a food tray), montages of people enjoying life, and, later, a grimy vision of war that makes him question his role. What does it say about a movie when such departures from the story are more involving and affecting than the story itself?

Things do, admittedly, become more interesting as Jonas uncovers the dark underside—there's always one of those—of what appears to be a utopia. His father (Alexander Skarsgård) works as a "releaser," and there's a chilling scene in which Jonas witnesses the clinical way his father dispatches an infant to "Elsewhere."

The movie appears always on the verge of diving into the workings of this world, but instead, it stands cautiously on the edge. It's no surprise, then, that The Giver drops everything for a third-act chase and follows it with a ridiculously simple solution to every problem it has established (without, obviously, considering the consequences of what would happen if, say, a person who has spent a large chunk of his life unknowingly killing innocent people suddenly gained the realization of his actions). We deserve much more thoughtful examinations of dystopias than this.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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