Another week, another movie about a special adolescent who saves society from the forces of darkness. Lois Lowry’s popular 1993 novel, The Giver, was a trendsetter in the juvenile dystopia genre, but 21 years later, in the wake of The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Lego Movie, another movie about a kid rebelling against socially imposed “sameness” is a case of the same old, same old.
Lowry’s slender 180-page book, which spawned three sequels, offered a middle-school readership the grim pleasures of the totalitarian fictions of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury, and the novel became a curriculum favourite. The Giver was also frequently banished from reading lists by conservative parents’ groups who objected to material they considered too mature and ethically ambiguous. The movie version, adapted by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert Weide, puts those concerns to rest.
The novel’s 12-year-old protagonist, Jonas, is now a teenager (played by poster-boy-handsome 25-year-old Australian actor Brenton Thwaites), and the movie’s conclusion has all the ambiguity of a sparkly Christmas card.
Jonas lives in a closed community on a cloud-ringed plain, surrounded by the off-limits “Elsewhere.” Books, music, weather, even memories and colour, have somehow been stripped from daily life. The first half-hour is shot in flat black and white, with elements of colour leaking into the frames gradually, as Jonas’s consciousness expands. In Gary Ross’s 1998 film Pleasantville, that technique was mischievously charming; here it’s a blunt metaphor.
The community where Jonas lives resembles a well-regulated campus or gated resort, with boxy modern houses, fountains and manicured lawns. He lives with his assigned family unit, a mild-mannered father (Alexander Skarsgard), tensely proper mother (Katie Holmes) and little sister Lily (Emma Tremblay). They share “feelings” every night, and begin each day with an injection to maintain “sameness.” Each year, the big event is a ceremony where the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep, looking like an aging hippie in long hair and bangs) assigns a new group of graduates their life work. Jonas’s friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan) becomes a pilot, while the pretty girl, Fiona (Odeya Rush), will become a caregiver.
Jonas has a special role: He will become the Receiver, the sole member of his generation allowed to know the group’s collective history, and to offer advice to the elders’ council. For his training, he goes to the edge of the known world and meets the Giver, an old man in a cottage played by Jeff Bridges, speaking in orotund tones. Bridges, who spent 18 years trying to get this film made (he originally intended his role to be played by his late father, Lloyd Bridges), brings a world-weary crackpot charisma to the part, but he can’t really rescue a film that’s undermined by self-righteous gaucheness. The Giver’s interactions with Jonas set off all kinds of unintended alarm bells: intimate contact, wrist-grabbing, talk of pain, secrecy and giving and receiving.
If their data-transmitting encounters eventually prove to be benign, they’re also banal, as Lowry’s serious but simplified ideas get reduced to a barrage of visual kitsch. Some images are innocuous (a sleigh ride, folk dancing) but the memory flashes graduate to a reel of world events (Vietnam, Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square) that feels like a parody of a CNN promo.
As Jonas learns about the joys and horrors of the past, he also has his eyes opened to the falseness of the world he lives in, a loveless system where unwanted babies and old people are euphemistically “released” (it sounds like a Tea Party paranoid fantasy of Obamacare). Eventually, in the film’s third act, director Phillip Noyce gets a chance to show off his action chops with a chase scene across wild terrain involving fancy drone airplanes, cross-cutting dramatic scenes of Jonas’s escape with violent events on the home front. In the process, the movie jettisons the eerie uncertainty of Lowry’s novel, which ended where an adolescent story should – at the edge of the unknown.