At this point in the dystopian movie cycle, I’m ready for a story about a teenager with zero interest in questioning the system, let alone starting a revolution. A spineless conformist—that’s what the genre needs.
Meantime there’s The Giver, director Phillip Noyce’s film version of the 1993 Lois Lowry best-seller, which remains a staple of the young adult shelves alongside the Hunger Games and Divergent books. So here we are again. It’s the future. Life is like Logan’s Run with shorter haircuts. (That film, starring Michael York and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, remains the shaggiest of all dystopian totalitarian adventures.) Speaking of hair: Meryl Streep, in the steely role of the Chief Elder, sports a ’do that can only be described as “disgruntled food co-op manager.”
So: Future. Planet nearly ruined thanks to “climate control.” Animal and plant life, destroyed. The surviving communities, resembling a post-apocalyptic edition of Long Island’s Levittown, adhere to strict rules of conduct, conformity, heavy doses of mood-stabilizing drugs for all citizens and a nightmarish take on peace, equality and socialism. As there always is in these stories, a sorting ritual determines the role in society each young citizen will play. Our hero, Jonas, played by Noyce’s fellow Aussie Brenton Thwaites, is selected for a very special occupation: that of the Receiver of Memories, to be schooled by the current and controversial RM, played by top-billed Jeff Bridges.
Books are banned in this future, as are “stirrings” of a sexual nature and music, even. The Bridges character is able to transmit knowledge and sensory recollections of what snow was like, and the color of an apple. Jonas’ pals Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) join Jonas in his mission to change the way things are in this most emotionally Botoxed of all possible worlds. Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard portray Jonas’ parents, who know their kid is special but can’t give him the leeway he craves, lest the entire society crumble.
The world according to The Giver isn’t above killing off elders and unhealthy newborns by the hundreds, a sinister plot point alluded to, nervously, by Noyce and by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide. Like Pleasantville, Noyce’s film establishes its colorlessness literally; much of the footage is conveyed in black and white or sepia tones, with splashes of color strategically placed to establish what lies beyond the present circumstances.
It’s not a lousy experience. Taylor Swift shows up in a glorified cameo. Thwaites has promise; Rush has more than that. But for a movie decrying the concept of societal “sameness,” The Giver is a hypocritical movie indeed. To borrow another phrase from Lowry, each new entry in the teen dystopia genre has become a sort of “comfort object,” imagining a terrible future while placating younger audiences with heroes and heroines who can make a difference. We all need that sort of thing in our pop culture lives, I suppose. But The Giver gives off an air of wearying familiarity, without much in the way of design wiles or cinematic wonder beyond the spectacle of Streep competing for her share of the movie against her own hair.
The Giver (PG-13): ★★✩✩✩