The Giver movie review: give it back

The Giver red light

A very simplistic Dystopia for Dummies — with a bit of Terrence Malick for Dummies thrown in — and inoffensive enough until it devolves into all kinds of stupid.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a big fan of science fiction

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It would be easy to let The Giver slide if its only problem were that it bears too close a resemblance to some of the other examples of young adult science fiction that have gotten recent transfers to the big screen. Such as (and most uncomfortably) Divergent, with which it shares a setting of a seeming utopia that shoehorns its happily conformist citizens into narrow roles until one oddball comes along who chaffs at the system. After all, the Lois Lowry novel this is based on was published almost 20 years before Divergent, and if some of Hollywood’s own self-imposed dystopian conformity is responsible for other issues with this movie — like how the book’s prepubescent 12-year-old protagonist is suddenly an 18-year-old hottie — well, this could still have been something to recommend to the young moviegoer who has discovered she enjoys teen SF action drama. Indeed, during the first half of The Giver, I figured I would be recommending this, if only halfheartedly, as a very simplistic Dystopia for Dummies — with a bit of Terrence Malick for Dummies thrown in — and encouraging any kids who enjoyed the movie to please go check out Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451, for starters. (I presume the Newbery Medal-winning Lowry novel is also worth reading.)

That all still applies, of course, but best to skip this movie entirely and head straight to the library. Because the tale of confused teen Jonas (Brenton Thwaites: Maleficent, Oculus), who feels like he doesn’t fit in to the carefully planned and painstakingly structured utopia he finds himself a part of, completely falls apart in its second half, in ways that are all kinds of stupid and, unforgivably for a science fiction film, laughably unscientific in ways that cannot even be defended with “well, we all know that sci-fi movies never get the science right.”

Jonas, you see, has been assigned the job of Receiver of Memories, to be passed on to him by the Giver of Memories (Jeff Bridges: True Grit, Tron: Legacy). These Memories are of the past world that is now hidden from people, a world of war and hatred and all sorts of ugliness, but also of passion and music and art and love. Human emotions have been medically suppressed, and you can’t have love without hate, compassion without jealousy, and so on. (We’re just taking the movie’s word for that. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not instantly obvious that it is, and it’s an idea that is worth exploring more.) The Giver is whom the leaders of the community go to when they need guidance on something or other, though it’s never really clear why his knowledge would be required when, obviously, the leaders are tasked with making decisions without emotion clouding their judgment.

But that’s not the howler that causes the entire scenario to collapse. The howler is the method by which Jonas will return all those awful, wonderful memories to all the people, once he decides that this is what his society needs. (Never before has the fact that a teenager is making decisions that will bring down his entire world, on his actions and judgment alone, been quite so accidentally disturbing.) It makes no sense at all within the context of the story, because it’s kind of like if the people in the past who set up this system had placed a big red button smack in the middle of their thing that they truly believed was for the good of all humankind with a sign on it reading “Please do not press this button.” (Also too: Jonas had to sneakily stop taking his medication to suppress his emotions in order to begin feeling, but this thing will supposedly work to make everyone feel again even though they’re doped up.) It is the most MacGuffin-y of MacGuffins, and it’s made even more offensive by the fact that it doesn’t make sense, either, on a level of how human memory — or collective cultural memory — works.

Maybe The Giver The Movie wants to work as metaphor, what with all those Malick-esque diversions into the emotive past. Except they’re all presented as very concrete, very actual memories that the Giver is sharing with the Receiver (it’s a sort of psychic thing the basis for which we have no understanding), not anything intended to convey much in the way of general human mood. Or if they are, they fail. Cinema is typically a very good medium for the expression of visual emotion, so it’s beyond odd that we don’t end up feeling very much here. The closest director Phillip Noyce (Salt, Rabbit-Proof Fence) gets to making us appreciate a little bit of what Jonas might be going through is how he (Noyce) starts off presenting this world in black-and-white, with dashes of color springing up as Jonas begins to start looking past the blandness of unfeeling conformity. But that’s only Noyce taking a cue from Pleasantville… which I’d also recommend as a smarter alternative to The Giver, and covering much the same ground in a far more entertaining way.

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