Friday, August 15, 2014

Movie review: Teenagers vanquish our dystopian future (yes, again) in The Giver

Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and more populate the latest adaptation of a YA classic.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 4:44 PM

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Perhaps future historians will look at films like The Hunger Games, Divergent and the just-released The Giver as canny counterprogramming against our zeitgeist of superhero movies, cute animal videos and the feel-good-story porn of Buzzfeed and Upworthy. These are hardly times of peace and plenty, but with so many targeted entertainment options for us to mainline from our Facebook feeds, those historians may figure it makes sense that the mediated fear of a slate-gray future run by dull totalitarians would get the blood pumping with vicarious rebellion, even if — or especially because — it was only for 90 minutes at a time.

The Giver, based on Lois Lowery's 1994 Newbery Award winner, joins the growing list of movies about false utopias that meet their match in defiant, caring teenagers. Its basic story is a familiar one, the kind that's been told on the screen time and again — Logan's Run, The Matrix, and Cloud Atlas spring to mind. Each establishes and works against a dystopian future world of conformity and control in order to flatter viewers with a dramatic celebration of human individuality. Except that in the case of The Giver, the drama is sometimes only there in spirit.

As the movie opens, we are introduced to a geographically constrained and highly regulated society in the aftermath of what is referred to as the Ruin. This setting of manicured landscapes, cold architecture and ubiquitous, all-seeing cameras recalls the kind of insidious society seen in the 1960s British series The Prisoner. Everyone here is going along and getting along because they all take a daily dose of a drug that keeps their emotions in check and suppresses sexual and artistic desire. It also keeps them from seeing the world in color (much of the film is presented in a silver monochrome to convey this narrowed existence).

Within this setting we first meet Jonas, Fiona and Asher, three teenage friends anticipating the impending multipart Ceremony. The entire village attends the event to celebrate different age groups — saying creepy things like "thank you for your childhood" — as they graduate to fulfill roles picked out for them by the Elders, who control all aspects of society. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is chosen for the highest honor — that of Receiver, for which he will absorb memories of human history, memories denied to everyone else.

Guided by the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges), Jonas connects with the kaleidoscopic array of human emotions and experiences. So we can share in Jonas's awakening, director Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, Salt) piles on one kitschy image after another — people running in fields, laughing and playing, news footage of protesters defying authority. Such images are less successful at arguing against the repression of emotions than they are in arguing against collages that have the cheap inspiration of a commercial. With his eyes suddenly open to the lie of his life and community, Jonas resolves to awaken everyone else. Bridges' Giver (as he now calls himself in his teaching role) assists by showing him a map that references Elsewhere, the area beyond the boundaries of the community that, if reached, could change society.

Working against them is the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who harbors deep suspicions about the Giver, and who is absolutely convinced that this controlled society is as it should be. She and her fellow Elders not only manage every aspect of society, they control the weather. Streep, sporting a long gray wig, plays her role like a supremely confident hippie matriarch who took the commune concept to an oppressive extreme. "When people have the power to choose, they choose wrong," she says, rebuking the Giver's attempt to bring back the community's collective memory.

Jonas also find resistance in his mother (Katie Holmes), a true believer who often admonishes those in her family to mind their "precision of language" if anyone should speak with too much emotion. Alexander Skarsgard portrays Jonas's father, less uptight about the rules than mom but with a darker, key role to play in the community and the story.

The Giver's premise of a society engineered for equality and no desire for conflict or suffering is compelling because it suggests the result of conservative and progressive philosophies driven by fear. And while that premise is thought-provoking and lends itself to powerful gut reactions, so much of the setting is insufficiently explained that the structure of the film and its flaws are more apparent than the drama it wants to generate. And to be frank, the movie is not about debating the merits of the society it proposes. Rather than argue solely against the idea of a drug that suppresses conflict, The Giver rigs the audience's sympathies in its favor by creating a world where eliminating the instinct for conflict also entails eliminating the ability to feel the variety of emotions that give people joy and make them happy to be alive.

A late sequence, juxtaposing the quest for life with impending death, gave me a lump in the throat. But it's an emotion the rest of the film doesn't fully earn. The Giver is about rejecting conformity and celebrating life, and yet it's artistically limited, lacking the vision needed to make its premise and conflicts come to life. Jeff Bridges, who is one of the film's producers, has been trying to get it made since the mid-1990s, when he envisioned his father Lloyd for the title role. But whatever passion he has for the project is missing on the screen (and he doesn't help with a performance that's mannered to the point of being irritating). The movie has all the dramatic pull of watching gears in a clock — characters behave and act in certain ways because the story requires them to. The final sequence, as Jonas makes his way toward Elsewhere, stretches believability, raises more questions that distract, and rushes toward its conclusion as if it were under a strict time limit. In light of the inconsistency that defines the rest of the film, that's probably a good thing.

2.5 out of 5 Stars
Rated PG-13. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, Brendan Thwaites and Odeya Rush. Now playing.

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