Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Giver is an ambitious adaptation of Lois Lowry’s award-winning novel, but it’s rushed, muddled, and bogged down by its intentions of making a dystopia that appeases young viewers. The novel was celebrated upon its release in 1993, read in schools around the country but also surrounded by controversy about its message. The film, on the other hand, plays the story safe and uses many dystopia trappings that feel all too familiar in the wake of recent efforts like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Here, the rules are seemingly simple: the community formed is idyllic and tranquil, with all of the citizens healthy, self-sufficient, and productive. People are happy and there is no war, pain, or suffering. Yet in attempting to create a utopia, they ultimately produce a dystopia because the citizens do not know of any kind of art or wildlife, nor do they have any memories of the past world and what used to be on Earth.
The story follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who fails to be chosen at an annual ceremony that determines a citizen’s place in their society. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) believes that Jonas has the potential to see beyond their reality, assigning him the position of “Receiver of Memory.” He will be learning from the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an old man who holds memories of the past that have gone from generation to generation. The Giver is a man who doesn’t have a filter and also doesn’t have to obey the laws of society, which include using precision of language (i.e., avoiding fluffy words like “love”), telling the truth, taking daily medication, and forgiving and apologizing for everything. Jonas has grown up with all of these rules and must learn that with these memories will come an understanding of their society. He is taught the ways of the past, both good and evil, but cannot understand how they can live in such a simple, empty way when denied life’s most precious gifts.
The premise is compelling and crazily ambitious. Like most films of the sort, though, with great ambition comes great responsibility. The film grows increasingly faulty over its running time and seems to leave out important elements that would help illuminate the nature of the world. How exactly did this society form? That’s a nagging question that gets a roundabout response: well, the world was a bad, evil place, so this society had to be created in order to preserve humanity. But how did they come to exist on top of a rock formation above the clouds? Phillip Noyce’s film cares more about ideas than particulars, which I cannot necessarily fault. The ideas are lofty and epic in scope, with the society itself acting as a strange form of socialism that numbs the brain and eradicates all sense of emotion from the equation. The society must sustain itself and prosper; the will of the people does not matter as long as the society grows stronger.
Color is an important element of the film, too, with much of the beginning taking place in black-and-white to signify the simplicity and emptiness of the citizens’ lives. Color only emerges when Jonas opens himself up to the past and sees what the world has to offer; his brain can be free and feel as much as it desires. Thwaites is a solid choice for the lead, providing some heft to the role by allowing subtleties to emerge when the script allows. The love story surrounding him and Fiona (Odeya Rush) is muddled and lifeless, with Rush proving unable to make the most of a mild, inconsequential character. Bridges and Streep are remarkable when on screen, particularly when they share the frame; they are dynamic and versatile, giving the story even more gravitas and meaning. Yet the film becomes muddled and far too absurd in its last half hour, using vague symbolism and an open-ended conclusion that asks more than elaborates. The Giver is a film with a heavy message but an unsure voice.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)