I was invited to a preview screening of “The Giver” last week and with a heavy heart, I regret to inform you all that it was abysmal.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, “The Giver” is based on a classic dystopian novel by Lois Lowry.
It is set in a society modeled right out of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. Everything is peaceful and serene; there is no crime, violence, or poverty; and overtly ‘happy’ citizens go about their routines.
Of course, things aren’t what they appear.
Every aspect of each individual’s life is planned by the elders of the society. Jobs, spouses, pregnancies, children, daily activities, food, entertainment… All of it. Every shred of individuality and curiosity about the world has been eliminated. And to achieve this, the people must kept in line by daily injections of a drug designed to stifle creativity and keep people as obedient as possible.
As the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) says in the film, “When people are given the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.”
“The Giver” centers around a young boy, Jonas (blandly portrayed by relative newcomer Brenton Thwaites). Jonas is a bit of an anomaly in this society. He’s more curious, and can sometimes see the world in ways different from most of his peers.
The action begins during the coming of age ceremony, during which each person is assigned his or her career. Jonas is uniquely selected to become the “Receiver of Memories” – a once-in-a-generation honor and fast-track to becoming a respected elder within the community.
And so Jonas begins a secretive apprenticeship with the aging “Giver” (played in this case by the always-excellent Jeff Bridges), and each day he’s literally given the collected memories and emotions spanning the known history of the human race through some kind of tactile psychometry.
The more Jonas experiences the past and begins to feel raw, un-medicated human emotions like love, pain, loss, death, and joy; the more he starts to think something is horribly wrong with his society.
Watch the trailer:
Most of the beats in the movie will be familiar to everyone regardless of whether or not they’ve read the book, but the predictable plot formula is hardly the only problem with The Giver as a film.
There are major issues with the screenplay & dialogue; the acting & chemistry between cast-members; many of Phillip Noyce’s key directorial choices; and most of all, the interminable 1st-person narration provided by Brenton Thwaites’ Jonas.
His narration not only bookends the film with dry and unnecessary description of the societal status quo, it also pops up perhaps 7 more times throughout the movie to explain various plot points and even what emotions his character is feeling in scenes we just watched!
There’s also a romantic subplot in the film between Jonas and his childhood Fiona (Odeya Rush), but the actors have all the on-screen chemistry of a pair of golf balls, so I figured perhaps this ridiculous over-use of narration was a stop-gap to make up for the weak performances given by the young leads.
Either way, if the audience needs a character’s emotions explained to them through narration, something has gone horribly wrong with the storytelling.
And it’s not just the script… This movie should have presented the film-makers with a ton of opportunities show the audience what it’s like to experience powerful new emotions after a lifetime of monotony, but none of the aesthetic choices do those moments any justice at all. Throughout the film we go from black & white to color, and the music & sound design go from virtually non-existent and grow increasingly prominent, but given that we’ve already seen this technique in films like The Wizard of Oz and Pleasantville, it’s not remotely innovative stuff.
What’s worse, a lot of the direction seems to actively work against the emotion in the story.
There’s one scene in particular where Jonas convinces Fiona to break the rules and slidedown the middle railing of a giant metal bridge. It’s the first moment of excitement and actual danger that either of them has ever experienced in their entire lives, and inexplicably, Noyce decided to shoot it in slow-motion and rob it of every ounce of exhilaration.
There are a few highlights. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep brought emotional depth and gravitas, and if the movie had just been about The Giver himself, who – no spoilers – had by far the best depth and most motivation for his actions of anyone, it might have been much better.
Sadly though, for me, most of the movie felt like a string of misfires.
That said, I have no doubt that a lot of conservatives & libertarians are going to love the film based purely on its anti-government and even pro-life themes. It looks like the Weinstein Company and Walden Media are banking on a predominately conservative audience-base given their pre-release strategy of private screenings for conservative groups (I saw it at the Tax Foundation).
Frankly, that’s a whole other problem to be tackled in a future blog-post.
In the end, “The Giver” is a movie that’s theoretically strong on big ideas about society, but doesn’t know how to handle any of them with soul, wit, or subtlety.