D: Phillip Noyce / 97m
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay
In the future, an event known as the Ruin has left the remains of North American society living in communities with rigid rules and hierarchies, and with no memory of the past. The stronger emotions such as love and fear have been quelled, leaving the world a literally grey, colourless place. On their eighteenth birthdays, friends Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan), attend a ceremony that determines their roles as adults in the community. Fiona is given the role of Nurturer, working with newborns in the Nurturing Centre, while Asher is chosen to be a drone pilot. Jonas, however, is initially passed over, until the Chief Elder (Streep) decrees that he will become the next Receiver of Memories.
The next day, Jonas begins his training with an old man who is the current Receiver (Bridges). The old man – the Giver – explains that he is the repository of all the memories of the past, from even before the Ruin, and this knowledge is used by the Elders to provide them with advice and guidance. Meanwhile, Jonas’s father (Skarsgård), a doctor at the Nurturing Centre, has brought home a sickly infant called Gabriel in the hope that more personal care can improve his health.
Jonas’s training continues and slowly the emotions that emerge lead to Jonas beginning to see colours instead of the grey. As Jonas starts to share his newfound experiences with Fiona and Asher, his increasingly erratic behaviour (by community standards) begins to attract the attention of the Chief Elder. She becomes worried that Jonas’ training won’t be successful, and stresses this to the Giver. To make matters more complicated, Jonas discovers that Gabriel has the same birthmark that he does, and that this means Gabriel will grow up to be a Receiver.
However, the next stage of Jonas’ training sees him learn about warfare and death, and he comes to realise that the community practices selective euthanasia as a way of maintaining the status quo, and of weeding out any infants who are too weak or sickly. When he learns this, he wants nothing more to do with being a Receiver, but then Gabriel is returned to the hospital to be “released”. Unable to let Gabriel be killed, Jonas has no option but to rescue the infant, and head for the boundary between the community and the rest of the world. If he can get them both safely across the boundary, then they will both be safe, and the community will undergo the very change the Elders are most frightened of.
While very similar in its set up to Divergent (2014), The Giver – based on the young adult novel by Lois Lowry – is lacking in many of the areas that made that particular movie so surprisingly effective. Even though the script is a largely faithful adaptation by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, The Giver suffers from having a bland central character in Jonas, a social structure that clearly hasn’t done away with the emotions it abhors, and chief amongst a myriad of other problems, doesn’t even attempt to make any sense.
This is an adaptation where the faults of the original novel have been translated directly onto the screen, and where the novel’s flawed logic has been allowed to dictate events that should have been tightened up dramatically, and which should have seen the characters given a lot more to do than behave as nothing more than genre stereotypes. Good science fiction that depicts a future society – especially one born out of the ruins of an older social structure – always links back to that previous structure in ways that resonate and make an audience either blink in recognition or baulk in horror at the mistakes being repeated. All The Giver does is say, Here’s the community, here’s the set up, no one sees colours, nobody understands the concept of death, parents aren’t really parents, and there’s a whole other world out there but no one’s allowed to see it. And then: just accept it.
But even if the audience were to accept the world of The Giver, even if disbelief could be suspended, it would have to be suspended with pretty much every single scene. There are too many occasions where the viewer’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. Throughout, Jonas behaves as if he’s forgotten the community is littered with surveillance cameras, choosing to carry out his small rebellions while being watched continually. And then, the extent of what he’s been doing is only discovered once he’s chosen to flee with Gabriel (wasn’t anyone watching up ’til then? If not, why not?). It’s also clear that infants such as Gabriel aren’t allowed to stay with families they’re not assigned to, so why is Jonas’s father allowed to bring him home (other than to suit the needs of the story)? And why, in a society that is apparently crime-free and has never been the subject of attack from any other survivors of the Ruin, does it have a security force, or fighter drones to patrol its airspace? These and many more questions remain unanswered, but perhaps the biggest question of all is one reserved for the extended sequence that occurs once Jonas and Gabriel have fled the community and are on their way to the boundary: namely, when were pyramids built in North America?
With the material proving so shoddy and conflicted, audiences are likely to fall back on the performances for comfort but even here they’ll be disappointed. Thwaites seems a good choice for Jonas but within the first ten minutes it becomes obvious that the few demands of the role aren’t going to be met. He’s adequate, but in the way that allows some actors to appear to be giving a more competent performance than they really are. Surprisingly, he’s matched by Streep. Here, the three-time Oscar winner dons an unflattering wig and adopts the air of someone who’s signed on without realising just how bad the script is. As the Giver, Bridges – for whom this has been something of a pet project over the years – brings a gravelly voice and the occasional flash of emotion to his role, but even he can’t inject any life into proceedings, leaving his scenes with Thwaites as near to lifeless as you can get without needing to call an ambulance. (And spare a thought for Holmes, required to do little more than frown a lot and remind Jonas to be more precise in his speech; what a stretch.)
In the hands of veteran Noyce, The Giver has that Hollywood sheen that keeps things looking interesting even when they’re not, and with editor Barry Alexander Brown, manages to keep things moving, especially during a difficult final third that sees the script ramp up the awkwardness and the clumsiness of proceedings to such a point that some viewers may give up out of mounting frustration. It is a handsomely mounted production however (once the grey gives way to full colour), and Marco Beltrami’s score adds a much needed fillip to the overall blandness, but these are minor successes in a movie that remains sluggish and uninspired.
Rating: 4/10 – an unsuccessful adaptation that tests the patience of its audience, and which raises too many questions it has no intention of answering, The Giver is yet another teen vision of a future dystopian society that offers complacency of ideas over originality of thought; dull and meandering, this is one future tale that rarely warrants the attention it’s seeking.