Review: ‘The Giver’ Stands Out, But Probably Not For Reasons Intended

'The Giver'
‘The Giver’

In a sea of movies adapted from young-adult dystopian novels, The Giver stands out because of its visual scheme.

Phillip Noyce, the Australian veteran who has directed finely-tuned dramas such as The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, as well as brash action thrillers such as Salt and Patriot Games, has kept busy helming episodic television shows for much of the past decade, which is how he spent much of the early 1980s before his breakout feature, Dead Calm. In other words, he knows what he’s doing, and always brings a degree of poetic restraint to the theatrical features that he directs, as well as an expert idea of how to fashion the material into a compelling whole.

At 97 minutes, The Giver flies by, buoyed by opening sequences that are presented monochromatically, starkly drawing attention to the idea that the movie must be set on another planet. Instead, it appears that the story takes place in a horrid  dystopian future, in which Earth’s leaders have somehow banded together and eliminated all inclinations toward war and poverty and discontent, largely by means of a mandatory drug regimen that pacifies everyone who is allowed to live past infancy.

Closer examination reveals the utter ridiculousness of the premise, but it’s adapted from Lois Lowry’s immensely popular 1993 novel for children, in which the lead character is 12 years of age. For whatever reason, the movie ages the lead character to 18, which means that he can be played by a young man who can appeal to the teen demographic.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is the uncertain, innocent, and naive hero who must wrestle with a weighty, singular assignment upon graduating from school. While his best friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) happily accept their new roles as infant nurturer and drone pilot, respectively, Jonas must take on the burden of being the Receiver of Memories. As he learns from an aged and mumbling man that he comes to know as The Giver (Jeff Bridges), Jonas must accept memories of the old, destroyed world of mankind telepathically, so that he can advise the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) when called upon to do so.

As portrayed in the movie, the Chief Elder is not particularly interested in anyone else’s advice, and tends to ignore it when it’s offered by the current Receiver of Memories, so … whatever. (Remember, this is from a book intended for children, and was never intended for deep reflection upon its practicality or advisability.) It’s not clear why the Chief Elder — or any of the other elders, who are only shown in silence — has approved what The Giver is doing, especially since everyone is medicated to the point of meek compliance with every instruction given, but … whatever.

When memories are passed from Giver to Receiver, the screen comes alive with stock footage of conflicts and wars and people of color, and the Receiver — or Jonas, if you prefer — almost immediately ignores orders to keep all this learning stuff to himself. He’s just so happy that he starts alluding to it when talking to his parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard), little sister, or Fiona, on whom he’s had a terminal crush, evidently for many years.

This is bad, and the Chief Elder even takes the time to advise the Receiver to stick to his studies, but Jonas is a young man and so he ignores all the warning signs. (And, again, why did the elders approve someone so young receiving such a heavy-duty assignment? Haven’t they learned that young people are more impulsive and more likely to share secrets, especially ones that adults tell them to shut up about? But … whatever.)

Eventually, things get intense, and colors burst out all over the place, and people run and are concerned, and a baby gets put out to pasture, and then people ride cool-looking bicycles furiously, their legs churning, without ever breathing heavily, and so, yeah, don’t take medication that adults give to you and don’t reign in your emotions and don’t worry about war and pain and suffering and all that bad stuff, because the main thing is that YOU NEED TO FEEL. Or … whatever.

The Giver is a strange beast of a YA movie, but it’s always cool to listen to Jeff Bridges mumble and Meryl Streep emote, and I really liked the visual scheme developed by Phillip Noyce and Ross Emery, who’s served as director of photography for cool horror movies like Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and odd-looking blockbusters like The Wolverine. And, hey, it’s only 97 minutes, so … whatever.

The film opens wide in theaters across Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, August 15.