These days many speculative fiction films are set in dystopian cities, places ravaged by war, famine or man’s stupidity. “The Giver” goes a different way, setting the action in a utopian society where everyone is equal and no one, except for a young man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), questions anything.
Based on Lois Lowry’s young adult novel of the same name, “The Giver” is set in an ascetic world divided into climate-controlled communities. Climate isn’t the only thing that is tightly controlled, however. A strict set of simple rules—like “Use precise language” and “never tell a lie”—keep people in line but to make sure the citizens conform, they’re given a morning injection—the Prozac of the nation.
The docile population lives a colorless existence, where their every move is monitored and all choice has been removed because, as the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) says, “When people have the right to choose they choose wrong every single time.”
When Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memory, the recipient and keeper of all mankind’s darkest secrets and memories, he begins to realize that the world was not always monochrome, that it was once a colourful place where love—“ a word so antiquated it no longer has meaning”—and pain existed side by side with war, peace and all the other messy stuff that make humans human.
“The Giver” is George Orwell Lite, willy-nilly lifting from not only “1984,” but Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and a host of young adult novels. It’s an unholy combination of dystopian themes and tropes, banged together to create a convincing, if somewhat dull world.
Shot in austere black and white, the highly controlled community is like 1950s America on film, structured, monotone in race and idealized. The conformity on display is chilling, at least the idea of it is. The film is too restrained to show us the detrimental effects of the grinding monotony of living in a place where sameness is valued above all. We’re told that the memories of the past are agonizing, “Sometimes the pain of the memories is too much,” says The Giver (Jeff Bridges)—but the flashbacks to the wild, untamed life that came before the enforced conformity aren’t as revealing as they’re meant to be. Colorful stock footage shots of people dancing, animal cruelty and other slices of life are meant to shine a light on the human condition but are, for the most part, no more provocative than anything we see on the nightly news.
They are jarring, like a screaming barker commercial for Monster Trucks interrupting an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre,” but only because they’re such a break in tone from the rest of the film. These visions may rock Jonas’s world, but they don’t make much of an impression on ours.
Also not making much of an impression is Meryl Streep in a generic villainess role. The cast’s other Oscar winner, Jeff Bridges is in full-on old codger mode, reviving his gruff voice for “True Grit” and bringing some humanity to a movie that should be teeming with it, but isn’t.
The remaining cast, even the leads, Thwaites as the young man who longs for something more in life and Odeya Rush, his love interest who has a harder time imagining a world without bland orthodoxy, aren’t given enough to do to make us root for them. Ditto supporting actors Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes.
“The Giver” is a small movie with big ideas about individual freedoms, memory, traditions and customs. Important themes one and all, but they’re wrapped in a movie that does not do them justice.