I’m a little perplexed by the critical trouncing Phillip Noyce’s The Giver is getting. Of course, I understand a lot of it is based on comparing the movie to the book (or books) — a concern I don’t have, since I haven’t read it (or them). I’m not sure that should matter, since the movie ought to judged on its own merits. (Yes, I know that won’t happen with any well-known, well-liked source material — whether it’s a book, a play or a comic book.) As far as the business of making the characters older than they were in the book, I’ll only point out that such a move didn’t hurt A Clockwork Orange (1971), and, in fact, made it more believable. Now, I’m not saying that The Giver is without its flaws — or even without its cheese. Some of the flood of images of horror that plague the film’s hero are clichéd and weak — something that can partly be blamed on the PG-13 rating. No excuses of any kind, however, occur to me for that long-haired grey wig perched on Meryl Streep’s head. It makes her look like an aged version of Anjelica Huston in The Addams Family (1991) with the addition of the bangs from one of those rubber shrunken heads found in novelty stores. That’s just a plain bum move. There’s more, but overall I think The Giver is a pretty good movie — certainly better than is being said.
I suspect that part of the problem here stems from The Giver just being one teen-angst-dystopian-society movie too many — coming on the heels of Divergent (2014), in the midst of the ongoing Hunger Games series and even the wreckage of the dismal Ender’s Game (2013). That’s too bad, because there’s a raw quality to the The Giver that gives it an urgency and a truly chilling quality that’s completely missing from its companions. There’s a frisson to several key moments here that — for me at least — are nowhere in evidence in the other films. (My next statement might be considered in the nature of a spoiler, so you may want to jump to the next paragraph if you want to see the film cold.) Even though we’ve all seen enough movies to have a strong suspicion what someone being “released to elsewhere” is a euphemism for, the depiction of it — thanks to the completely off-handed presentation of “releasing” an infant who doesn’t measure up — strikes me as more disturbing and powerful than anything I’ve seen in the more obvious Hunger Games manipulations.
The premise here is that the world has become an unfeeling group of communities built after some cataclysm of the past called “The Ruin” where everything is so cut-and-dried and sterile — partly through daily injections — that the world appears to have turned to black and white. (I am amused that the original trailer never even hinted that parts of the film were not in color.) People live in sanitized “dwellings” (they slightly resemble those in François Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451, a work with similar underpinnings), are assigned families and have their futures mapped out for them by “The Elders” deciding what they’re best suited for. The film’s main character, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus), has been chosen as “The Receiver,” who will receive the knowledge of “The Giver” (Jeff Bridges) — the history of humankind before this supposedly utopian society came into being. What he learns both thrills and horrifies him — and definitely changes him. In fact, he wants to tell others (which, of course, is forbidden) and ultimately to free this society from its black and white torpor.
No, it doesn’t all work. Some of it is a bit on the facile side, which may be a result of cramming too much into one film. The business with the sled (you’ll know it when you see it) is just this side of a Citizen Kane “Rosebud” joke. While I mostly like the ending — and all the questions it leaves unanswered — it definitely moves the story from science fiction into the realm of mystical fantasy (or hooey, if you insist). The acting is generally solid, even if Bridges gives the only standout performance. No one, however, is bad. Thwaites is very good, while Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård are disturbing in their rigid detachment from emotion. And Streep? She’s fine, but not given all that much to do. Overall, I recommend The Giver, but it’s not an essential. Rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence.