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An agreeable YA riff on Orwell — via Logan’s Run — topped with the kind of magic-transformative baloney that passes for an ending in too many otherwise-fine Hollywood adventures, Phillip Noyce‘s The Giver greets a man-made Utopia with the eternal question: “If you can’t feel, what’s the point?” Lois Lowry’s 1993 Newbery Medal-winning source novel has been substantially altered here, mostly in ways that nudge it toward other chosen-one teen fantasies set in restrictive futuristic worlds (Divergent being one of the most recent). The changes, which include making the book’s 12-year-old hero old enough to make tween viewers swoon (he’s played by 25-year-old Aussie Brenton Thwaites), surely enhance marketability, even if they sand some edges off a tale that has won many hearts over the years. The presence of Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep in supporting roles will help draw some attention from grown-ups who don’t know the book, but while the film may see enough success to justify follow-ups (Lowry has written three sequels), this franchise won’t come close to competing with The Hunger Games and other more epic series.
Thwaites plays Jonas, who lives in a black-and-white world. Literally. Color, unpredictable weather and interpersonal conflict have been carefully excised from the society he was born into — an unnamed city-state, set on a mesa ringed by clouds, where identical dwellings house family units whose members aspire to perfect Sameness. Daily injections of passion-inhibiting drugs help in that quest, as does a total ignorance of history. Memories of mankind’s unruly past have been erased, known only to a single Receiver of Memory (played by Bridges, who appears to have filled his cheeks with cotton in search of the perfect grumbly-gruff Voice of Experience).
Upon their ritualized graduation from childhood, the Chief Elder (Streep) doles out appointed roles to Jonas and his peers. Good buddy Asher (Cameron Monaghan) will pilot one of the many flying drones that watch over citizens and politely inform them when they’re breaking a rule; sweet Fiona (Odeya Rush) will work in the Nurturing Center, caring for newborns until they are sent off to be raised by host families. Jonas, who already secretly realizes he sees things others can’t, will inherit the Receiver’s role, studying with his predecessor until he’s ready to advise the Elders in their decision-making.
If much of Ed Verreaux‘s production design has a deliberately generic feel (check out those chunky white bicycles!), the Receiver’s home office lives up to the revelations that will transpire there. An atrium-like library in a small stone bunker, it’s built on “The Edge”: It looks out on the cloud bank separating this world from Elsewhere, the place (ahem) that old folks go when they have reached the end of their long, productive careers. Here, Bridges’ Receiver becomes the eponymous Giver, sitting in mind-meld sessions with his pupil and allowing the young man to experience all the sensations and knowledge denied other citizens. This process of eye-opening is easily the film’s highlight, and Thwaites is appropriately awestruck by his first telepathic encounters with color, excitement and love. (In a much-hyped, flashback-ish cameo, Taylor Swift helps introduce Jonas to music.)
If he doesn’t see enough to grasp the depths of human experience the Elders have sacrificed for the sake of order, Jonas learns of more direct cruelties. When he realizes that a not-physically-perfect baby with whom he has bonded is due to be “released” from the burden of existence, he decides he must save this child from death, and this community from its own perfection.
Noyce is unsurprisingly capable in the short action sequence during which Jonas confronts his old schoolmates and makes his escape, and while his ensuing trek through Elsewhere is barely a shadow of the journey Noyce chronicled in Rabbit-Proof Fence, it makes good if quick use of daunting landscapes. But while Noyce is building suspense, cutting between Jonas’ flight and the peril of his loved ones back home (Streep is wasted as the heavy, enforcing conformity on those tempted to follow Jonas), the screenplay (credited to Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide) is preparing to let him down. With the exception of the psychic sessions between Jonas and the Giver, everything about this scenario is grounded in the physical world; order is maintained not by some ancient magic, but by technology, pharmaceuticals and old-fashioned authoritarianism. But (no spoilers here) the hurdle Jonas eventually faces is more akin to the enchanted object that a wizard-battling hero can simply smash to break the spell enslaving his kingdom. Wham-bam, no need for feel-good scenes of the peace he has brought to his fellow peasants.
This easy out should go over especially badly with readers attached to the novel’s much more ambiguous end — though to be fair, audiences by now are so used to this type of nonsense that it hardly even registers. Like Jonas’ father — Alexander Skarsgard, who more than anyone in the cast finds a way to embody Sameness while being unmistakably human — we moviegoers tend to accept what we’re told, never knowing the peaks of feeling and intelligence we should really be demanding.
Production companies: As Is Productions, Tonik
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Odeya Rush, Emma Tremblay
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenwriters: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide, based on the book by Lois Lowry
Producers: Nikki Silver, Jeff Bridges, Neil Koenigsberg
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Dylan Sellers
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Ed Verreaux
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Marco Beltrami
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes
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