The Giver (2014) / Sci Fi-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenplay: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide (based on the book by Lois Lowry)
Review published August 15, 2014
If you were to ask me after the first hour of The Giver had elapsed if I thought I would recommend the film, I would say, "Almost definitely." Skillfully directed by veteran Phillip Noyce (Catch a Fire, The Quiet American), with a solid cast, great score, excellent cinematography, use of color, and an intriguing premise, the film, based on the novel by Lois Lowry, has all of the tools and the talent on board to succeed.
Unfortunately, what was not to be expected would be a final half hour of narrative ineptitude so remarkable, one of the year's pleasant surprises does a reversal by emerging as one of my personal disappointments for 2014.
Though many will undoubtedly compare The Giver to the recent trend of futuristic films based on young adult novels written by women, what should be known is that Lowry's original 1993 Newbery Medal-winning novel not only predated those by a significant margin, but also is seen as an influence on them.
The gist of the story is a dystopian Earth (we presume) of the future in which society has been rebuilt out of the Ruin to form a more pleasant, peaceful society where everyone has a role to play, due to their genetic predisposition. It's a society in which nearly all emotion, pleasure and pain, have been eradicated through injections, where even such things as color and music are unknown to the citizens, who've never ventured over 'The Edge' to see what's on the other side.
Jonas (Thwaites, Maleficent) is a teenager who has passed his graduation ceremony, where youths are selected for the occupational role they are to assume, and has been selected for the nearly singular and unenviable responsibility of carrying all of the historical knowledge of the society, dubbed the 'Receiver of Memory', in order to become a sort of advisor or sage to the rest. He's immediately to be trained by 'The Giver' (Bridges, R.I.P.D.), one of the town's elders, where memories of Earth's past before The Ruin are uploaded into Jonas's mind.
Part of the problem with the film's ending is the lack of adequate explanation for nearly everything we've come to see before. For instance, in one of the biggest story contrivances, there's a metaphorical "reset button' for the entire society that can be activated if even one character dares to cross a threshold that is somehow keeping their entire existence in stasis. It's more of a narrative convenience when the story is painted into a corner than anything that feels true and honest thematically, and makes the entirety of the tale feel overtly manipulative.
Another big reason is that the film becomes leaden, trite, and blown out of proportion, but in a way that also feels abbreviated. There's no palpable tension to these scenes; we know the stakes involved, but never feel them. The race against time aspect, in which one character must do something in the nick of time or something else bad will happen, rings hollow, primarily because that heroic character isn't doing what's he's doing for that purpose, since he doesn't know what's going on in the situation he's left behind. And let's face it, at under 90 minutes without the credits, there definitely was ample time to give us much more backstory and better pacing, especially considering The Hunger Games films and Divergent clock in at 140 minutes.
Any film that has Meryl Streep (August: Osage County, It's Complicated) and Jeff Bridges in the cast is one that should never be disregarded outright, though it won't rank anywhere close to the best roles for either Oscar-winning thespian. Bridges, who not only produces but had obtained the film rights for the book not long after it was originally published, has continued a disturbing trend of playing caricature over character in one of his most labored, goofy-voiced performances in many years. There's not much for Streep to do but lend her presence, and the fact that all emotion is basically stripped out of her role as the town's Chief Elder means that she isn't required to emote. She's not bad, but she's handcuffed by the character's nature, a character that was not written to be nearly as important in Lowry's book, to a role that many could have played just as well.
Though written as a book before nearly all of the books this feels influenced by, as a film, The Giver feels very much crafted to fall into a modern-day sensibility of cinema. At various points, the film feels like The Village, The Truman Show, and an episode of Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone", but it just doesn't have the narrative oomph to take its momentum right to the very end. Even its use of a black-and-white world that becomes one of rich color when people "wake up" to individuality and freedom feels very much like Pleasantville, though without the risky themes, resonance, or panache. As an aside, I do have to commend the citizens of the town for being able to color coordinate their wardrobe and homes quite well, despite their inability to see them.
To receive his knowledge, Jonas initially experiences only the pleasure of live before The Giver shows him that there is much pain and suffering. Life imitates art, as The Giver also initially enjoys giving his the pleasure of an intriguing premise told well, only to make us suffer through a painfully bad climax and epilogue.
©2014 Vince Leo