Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Phillip Noyce
Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Meryl Streep, Cameron Monaghan.
A lot of young adult novels and their subsequent film adaptations now seem to be following a formula and a well established template. Sometime after an apocalyptic event (war, virus, whatever) has laid waste to life as we know it, seemingly utopian and efficiently functioning societies have sprung up that try to bring order out of chaos and rebuild communities that survive and prosper. These new hermetically sealed communities are tightly structured, everyone has an assigned role to play and knows their place, and is expected to somehow contribute to society. A seemingly benevolent ruler watches over everyone and ensures that life continues on in orderly fashion. But actually these are unsettling dystopian societies in which paranoia, suspicion and constant surveillance are also powerful tools in ensuring obedience. And of course there is a rebellious teenager who questions the structures and challenges the rules of society and poses a threat that must somehow be eliminated.
This is the familiar plot structure that propelled such films as the Divergent and The Hunger Games franchises. Which gives The Giver the unfortunate stench of familiarity and cliche. Which is ironic as The Giver is actually based on a young adult novel originally written some twenty years ago by Newberry Award-winning author Lois Lowry, which means it was one of the first novels to explore these concepts and establish the ground rules for all that followed in this popular but overcrowded genre.
The Giver is also something of a passion project for its star and co-producer Jeff Bridges, who has been trying for years to bring the book to the screen.
The Giver is set in such a dystopian society which has grown out of a cataclysmic event known simply as the ruin. Here depressing memories of the past are suppressed via a daily injection, supposedly for the good of everyone. A side effect of these injections also suppresses any form of human emotion and prevents the eye from registering any colours. And freedoms are curtailed. “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong every time,” says the chief elder (Meryl Streep), who is controlling and distrustful.
Everyone in this society has a role to play, whether it be nurturer, parent or protector. When the teens turn 18 they are assigned their respective roles in an elaborate ceremony. At the same time elderly citizens who have outlived their usefulness are ceremoniously sent on “a journey to elsewhere”, although I half expected them to end up as the primary food source for the citizens, a la Richard Fleischer’s bleak 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green. But while there is certainly something vaguely sinister about this community it is not as evil as that.
Jonas (Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites, from Save Your Legs, Maleficent, Oculus, etc) is assigned the important role of a receiver, an assignment that may well be a poisoned chalice. He is to absorb all of the accumulated knowledge and history of the community so that he will be able to advise the elders in a crisis and prevent them from repeating the mistakes of the past. All of this knowledge is contained in books. Although apparently technology is everywhere in this futuristic society, one has to wonder why there are no DVDs, videos or computer storage files to contain this wisdom. Jonas’ mentor is the grumpy and gnarled old curmudgeon known as the Giver (played by Bridges himself), who is being forced to retire.
Fortunately the Giver is not bound by the same restrictive rules and has a bit of freedom. He lives in an isolated house in a remote corner of the community on the edge of a cliff that represents the edge of the world as it is known. Beyond that is a desert that leads to some mythical place where no-one has dared to venture.
As the giver begins to impart his knowledge to Jonas, the young man begins to see the world in vibrant colours. He learns about the past and pain, sickness, war and death, and also senses the darker and more sinister nature of his world. He is forced to try and make a run and try to bring colour and passion back to his world.
But the way in which Bridges passes on his knowledge via touch frankly is a little unbelievable. Surely the scriptwriters Michael Mitnick and Curb Your Enthusiasm producer Robert B Weide could have hit on something a bit more credible. This is the first screenplay from Mitnick who, in 2013, was named as one of Variety magazine’s top 10 screenwriters to watch, while Weide has written extensively for documentaries. Although they remain reasonably faithful to the source material, Mitnick and Weide have made a few changes, especially to the ending which ups the action and suspense.
The stark production design effectively gives this unsettling futuristic community the look and feel of some of those classic dystopian sci-films from the 70s.
Australian director Phillip Noyce (Salt, etc) handles the material efficiently enough and keeps things moving along at a reasonable pace that doesn’t give audiences much time to question the logic of it all until after the final credits. The early scenes are shot in black and white, a metaphor for the bland, sameness of this world. But as Jonas begins to absorb the Giver’s knowledge there are bursts of colour.
Noyce has assembled a solid cast to flesh out the rather bland and largely one-dimensional characters. Compared to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, Jonas is something of a bland character, and Thwaites’ performance is a little too bland. Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes plays Jonas’ parents, while singer Taylor Swift has a small role as Rosemary, the Giver’s daughter, but she only appears briefly in flashbacks. Odeya Rush plays Fiona the romantic interest for Jonas, although teenage passion and romance are seemingly forbidden, but she shares a good chemistry with Thwaites.
In the title role, Bridges seems to be channeling those other great screen curmudgeons in Nick Nolte and James Coburn with his weary, cynical and gruff performance here. And Streep has little to do in her role as the chief elder of this society, but she does bring gravitas and authority and a hint of malevolence to her performance.
But we’ve seen all this before, and unfortunately The Giver is one of the lesser examples of this dystopian Young Adult genre, and ultimately brings little that is fresh or particularly engaging to the table.
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