Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites star in The Giver. (The Weinstein Company)
At the risk of having my millennial card revoked, I must admit that I’ve never read Lois Lowry’s seminal YA sci-fi novel The Giver. One might think that this embarrassing fact would make me better suited to enjoy this big-screen adaptation, having no pre-conceived notion of how Lowry’s world should be portrayed. Unfortunately, I must report that, even to my untrained eyes, The Giver film is a stiff, half-baked and supremely dated cash-grab.
The all-too-familiar story concerns a futuristic society established after the fall of the world as we know it. In this sterile, Apple-Store-esque utopia, all of humanity’s foibles – such as discrimination, war, poverty and illness – have been wiped away via a fascistic system wherein all citizens are stripped of emotions through prescribed injections of an unnamed wonder drug. These drone-like husks are then assigned to a specific life track, destined to blindly fulfill certain societal roles without ever questioning the carefully designed world around them.
We find our main character, 18-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), living a perfectly oblivious life alongside his unfeeling parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård) and his platonic female friend Fiona (Odeya Rush), all content in blissful ignorance. Everything changes when, at his graduation ceremony, Jonas is selected by the community’s maternal Chief Elder (Meryl Streep, obviously) to act as the new Receiver of Memory – a sort of oracle figure, noted for having extrasensory powers of perception. Jonas is sent to the outskirts of the settlement, where he meets with the titular Giver (Jeff Bridges) a wise, old outcast tasked with transferring all the memories of the “ancient” world on to the next generation.
Of course, as these things go, once the Giver starts showing Jonas the beauty of nature and the power of love, he starts to question the ideals he once held sacred, and, before long, the seeds of revolution are planted in our young hero. This transformation is represented onscreen by the (very, very) tried and true method of starting the film in black and white and slowly transitioning into color as Jonas begins to see the truth. This rather obtuse visual metaphor is exemplary of a film directed with an aggressive lack of subtlety. Typically skilled helmer Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector) doesn’t seem to feel much of a connection to the material, and it shows. The dream sequences that occur when the Giver feeds memories to Jonas could and should be vibrant spectacles, but instead they play as hastily thrown together montages of stock footage, like one of those HDTV sample videos they screen on a loop in Best Buy.
In addition, Noyce doesn’t manage to coax real performances out of his talented cast. Thwaites’ turn as Jonas is CW-teen-soap level in its plasticity, and, although Rush tries her best, she can’t overcome the paucity of her incredibly thin character. Even the legendary Bridges seems to be phoning it in with his one-note, gratingly gruff performance – a fact made doubly bizarre considering Bridges was in fact one of the driving forces in getting the film made in the first place. Rest assured, though: Meryl Streep remains Meryl Streep. She elevates the movie every time her pouty librarian of an Elder gloms on screen.
Unfortunately, even the titanic talent of Streep can’t save this adaptation from the unbeatable enemy known as time. While watching The Giver, I was reminded of the sad fate that befell 2012’s gargantuan flop John Carter. That film was adapted from an Edgar Rice Burroughs story that many consider to be the big grand-daddy of all space-opera sci-fi. Everything from Star Wars to Avatar owes a huge debt to the A Princess of Mars (Barsoom) series, and yet, when it came time to make the leap to the silver screen, the classic tale fell short. Indeed, it seemed to the layman audience that John Carter was nothing more than a rip off of the same space epics they had seen a thousand times, when in reality, it was the germ of all of them.
I can’t help but feel that The Giver is in a similar boat. When the novel came out in 1993, it was fresh and new, but two decades later, we’ve seen the ideas present in its pages rehashed and re-imagined many times over by smash titles such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. Now, with those adaptations having hit the box office in a major way, The Giver comes across like yesterday’s news – a pale copy of its own spawn.
The Weinstein Company
Currently in theaters
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