Review: The Giver (2014)

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Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenwriters: Michael Mitnick & Robert B. Weide
Based on the novel of the same name by Lois Lowry
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Monaghan & Taylor Swift
Runtime: 97 min // Certificate: 12a

Another month, another dull-as-ditchwater dystopian adaptation aimed primarily at the “yoof” market. This one can at least boast of a few passable performances and some intriguing ideas under its belt – even though said ideas languish in terminal crudity – but we’ve now hit the unfortunate stage where all of the uniqueness and individuality of person that these films put on a pedestal has morphed into a rather pitiful joke, especially when you consider just how pedestrian and interchangeable they’ve become.

Based on Lois Lowry’s novel of the same name, which was written well before the likes of The Hunger Games, Divergent et al came to infect our cinemas like a virus, The Giver is like an Ayn Rand fantasy on Speed, in which the cruel State has stolen everyone’s ability to make foolish decisions – and thus, their humanity – in the name of peace and progress. It is set in a post “Ruin” World (we are given no concrete definition of what the “Ruin” is or was, naturally) in which emotions are regulated by medication, in which language is used and altered to monitor how people experience and view their surroundings and in which the pre-Ruin past has been wiped from people’s consciousness altogether, it tells the story of Jonas (Thwaites; Oculus), a recent “graduate” of this dystopian society who is specially selected to be the new “Receiver of Memory”. His task is to learn about both the joys and the horrors of the past from a man known as “The Giver” (Bridges; The Big Lebowski) so that he can use his knowledge of the mistakes of the past to help maintain order and control in the new World.

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The anti-authoritarianism of works like this is always commendable, not least because it makes abstract political concepts accessible to a younger audience, and I respect The Giver for its unashamedly Orwellian sensibilities. The themes that it explores can be boiled down to one simple question – does humanity’s good outweigh its bad – and though the film takes a much too simplistic approach to the issues it tries to tackle, there are elements of greatness hidden beneath the teenage-friendly direction and casting which deserve some credit. The decision to film “ignorance” in monochrome and “knowledge” in colour is a decent one, as it allows Noyce (Patriot Games) to be mildly creative long after the screenplay has descended into humdrum triteness.

The problem, alas, is that The Giver is interminable, tedious and frankly stupid. A film like this cannot exist on ideas alone. It needs relatable characters, a decent plot and an emotional throughline to which the audience can relate, and The Giver – despite the best efforts of its two screenwriters – lacks all of these things. Thwaites’ Jonas is practically flawless (at least on our terms), which means whatever dilemmas of conscience he seems to face are personal only to him, not the audience, while Bridges’ Giver – though just one alcoholic beverage short of the Dude – is a caricature of every “wise old man” character rolled into one neat package. Streep’s (Sophie’s Choice) Chief Elder character, similarly, is little more than a one-dimensional figure of “fascism with a smile” while Jonas’ friends are about as interchangeable and faceless as they come.

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It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that love saves the day, because it always does in films like this. The Giver, like so many stories of its ilk, wants to be seen as dark and callous, yet it can’t help but patronise its audience with the false notion that human emotions are the most powerful thing on Earth. It wants to have its cake, it wants to eat it, and then it wants you to applaud its vanilla flavour for being so radical and abstract. The Giver flirts with intriguing ideas but it lacks the courage of its convictions to see them through to anything other than their inevitable, teenage-friendly conclusion, and as such it becomes quite instantly forgettable. That all of the main characters are attractive youngsters with flawless skin and dough eyes further cements The Giver’s place as nothing more than teen-fantasy mush.

I admire what The Giver was trying to do but it is fatally lumbered by over familiarity and lazy writing. It also doesn’t help things (at least not for an immature buffoon like me) that the two main characters are “The Giver” and “The Receiver”, though perhaps that’s the message of the film; that Jeff Bridges is a top and Brenton Thwaites is a power bottom? Now that’s a film I’d watch!