Review: THE GIVER Tells Recycled Story In One Shade of Grey
In the current age of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and umpteen other similar clones, it's quite simple and probably appropriate to lump The Giver in with all the rest: Dystopian teen romance, check. Overcooked self-seriousness, check. Tired systemic commentary... check. All of that would render this pulseless new entry completely dismissible, if not for the fact that its source material, a youth novel by Lois Lowry, predates The Hunger Games by at least a decade.
Apparently, star Jeff Bridges purchased the rights and has been trying to make this film for the better part of twenty years. In that time, he aged into the role of The Giver, a part he's said to have originally intended for his own father. This pedigree, this burden of longevity, then moves The Giver into a different, slightly elevated category, that of "noteworthy failure." Big questions are addressed with fine intentions, but we've got one boring movie on our hands here. Director Phillip Noyce has done worse on occasion, but he's also done much better.
In a world cobbled together from previous movies and stories comes a plot we've experienced again and again. If you're old enough, you might've enjoyed it as George Lucas' THX-1138, or Logan's Run. If you don't go back that far, it should at least evoke the aforementioned Divergent and The Hunger Games. Except this time, it's a young man, not a young lady, who realizes he must buck the system. Brenton Thwaites is the lead, introducing himself in voice over by perhaps quoting the book, but also quoting Weezer: "My name is Jonas." That connection is about as rockin' as this movie ever gets.
They live on an isolated plateau of Caucasians in the clouds. To venture beyond The Edge would be unthinkable. It's a far-flung post-bomb future that's been meticulously rebuilt to eliminate disease, bad weather, bad manners, conflict, and color. And not just people of color - in a kind of reverse Wizard of Oz effect, Jonas lives in a bland world of grey until he gets to The Giver's hovel, where he is then led to see color.
In an unconventional if altogether dull move, a large portion of the movie is presented as though someone lazily applied a greyscale filter to ordinary color footage without adjusting the black levels. Until bursts of color pop in according to Jonas' experiences and realizations, the greyscale effect plays more like a projector problem than an artistic choice.
In the requisite ceremonial coming of age in the film, Jonas is assigned the coveted position of Receiver, meaning he has to start taking meetings with the weird old Giver, who lives on the very Edge of the plateau. The Giver, it turns out, has ulterior motives in his passing on of communal knowledge. He actually wants his apprentices to know and experience the previous world, and all it's faults and wonder.
Through these intense psychic sessions, Jonas comes to see that the world doesn't have to be a dismal grey reality of attractive actors drifitng, pre-ordained, through an antiseptic world. The world can - and should - have soaring highs! And tragic lows! Once upon a time there was Christmas and snow and sleds and singing and music! But also war and murder and guns and explosions and killing.
To have any of the former, we must also accept the latter. And to do so opens us to the worst kind of vulnerabilities, but it's worth it if the world can also have celebration and tribal dance and Muslims and color and happiness and worship and black people and drums and jubilee, which the film shows us Tree of Life style, in bursts of saturated bursts literally taken from Ron Fricke's beautiful cine-tapestries Baraka and Samsara. In these moments, the notion of diversity is exoticized and held up as some sort of easy virtue. Fortunately though, the film in its grander scheme knows better: Diversity and equality, while both essential human virtues to be aspired to, can and often do run counter to one another.
Nonetheless, all of this adds up to the Weinstein Company's idea of teen popcorn movie manna. What they fail to take into account by approaching, producing, and packaging this project thusly is that glacial grey imagery, brooding familiarity, and a scene of a baby getting euthanized via a syringe to the noggin don't exactly scream repeat viewing sensation for the tween target audience.
In one flash-tastic summer, this leading guy Brenton Thwaites has hit the scene quickly. The accomplished haunted mirror movie Oculus ran point in the spring, giving way to roles in Maleficent, The Signal, and now this. Not bad for a scrawny, twinkly eyed fella of 24. Thwaites registers somewhere between the presence levels of Josh Hartnett and a young Andrew McCarthy - utilitarian, agreeable, but not ever memorable. Perhaps it's about right, then, that the girl of the film, his childhood pal turned sensual fantasy, can't quite ever fully commit to running off with him.
For several years now, survival beyond the end of days has been a popular recurring theme at the multiplex. If films like Oblivion and After Earth show us how movie stars cope, the glut of young adult sci-fi fantasy is demonstrating how teens see it. Fox has to be positively beaming to have Planet of the Apes, the granddaddy of post-apocalyptic franchise, back as a functioning and viable property again. The Giver's world isn't run by apes, but chief elder Meryl Streep (!) does cop her wardrobe from the ruling apes of yore. Also among The Giver's many cinematic borrows are everything from the production design (they all live in houses like the one in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle, in the artificial town from the feature length version of The Lorax) to the story ("Hey, waitaminute...! This bland utopian intentional community world has a sinister underside!")
Will the tweens of the key demographic care about this? If they do show up, they likely won't know outright, even if the underlying knowledge that none of this new, and in fact most of it is recycled, is nagging in the collective unconscious somewhere. It has to be. At least, according to Jeff Bridges' Giver, it would certainly seem to be the case.