If I never see another young adult film with some kind of choosing ceremony as part of its plot, I'll be eternally grateful. Okay, yes, I realize that author Lois Lowry's 20-year-old novel "The Giver" is essentially the template for many of the dystopian, sci-fi books with children as the central characters, but I'm not reviewing the book. As a film that comes after THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT (to name just two), it feels like old hat as a storytelling device set in a mysterious society where, through medication, humans have been stripped of any extreme emotion, memories of the world before this modern time, or even the ability to see color. And this grand experiment in peace keeping seems to be doing the trick. But even among the elders who run this society (led by Meryl Streep's Chief Elder), there is a need to preserve at least some iota of what came before, even if it's only to remind the world of how bad things could get were emotions a part of the equation again.
Every few years, an 18-year-old—in this case Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) who shows a propensity for slight curiosity for knowledge in this world of being content and just like everyone else—is selected to be a pupil of The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the only man in society who hold the memories of the world before (our present world, in other words), complete with death, war, jealousy, envy and other bad behaviors. Of course, when The Giver starts mentally transferring these memories into Jonas (deemed the Receiver of Memories), he starts out slow, with images of sledding and hints of color. It actually kind of fun seeing someone discover color for the first time.
But Jonas becomes overwhelmed by some of what he sees, and he also grows angered that others are denied the gift of emotion. He discovers that he has a crush on his best friend Fiona (the quite good Odeya Rush of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE and the upcoming GOOSEBUMPS movie), and he wants to tell her, but it's unlikely she'd understand. Jonas tricks his parents (in this world, babies are assigned parents who aren't their birth parents), played by Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes, into thinking he's still drugged, but his emotions are running wild and he must hide this fact or the thought police will come after him before his training is complete.
THE GIVER is an odd bird. While I admired its bold story elements about the lengths we would have to go to stop murdering each other on such a grand scale, it's tough to watch the Skarsgard administer a shot to a lesser-sized twin baby to "release" it and then send it down a garbage chute. I get that the book has always been controversial for moments like this, and that Skarsgard's doctor character doesn't actually realize that what he's doing is killing or even what death truly is, but for a PG-13 film, that pretty rough stuff. And its doesn't help that the filmmakers (including screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide) seems to nervously tiptoe around the sheer volume of infant and elder death that this advanced society condones.
The ideas about slowly waking up someone's mind to the way things really are isn't a new one, but it is an interesting concept. And Thwaites (who has been seen just this year in MALEFICENT, THE SIGNAL and OCULUSa) does a credible job keeping his reactions flowing from shock to amazement to horror. I think the biggest and perhaps most disappointing surprise of THE GIVER is that it was directed by Philip Noyce (DEAD CALM, PATRIOT GAMES, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, SALT), a solid filmmaker who is slumming here, no matter how you look at it.
There's an utterly bizarre subplot/flashback involving The Giver's previous student, Rosemary, who is played by an almost unrecognizable Taylor Swift, whom he pushed too hard too fast and lost her to an emotional overload. I'm not sure how a well-placed couple of lines of dialogue couldn't have conveyed the same information in much less time, but what do I know?
The biggest issues I had with THE GIVER have more to do with how stiff and soulless the film seems even after emotion starts to creep into the picture. This society lives in a sort of cloud city hovering slightly over what I presume to be the ruined Earth below, but this separation is never really explained. It has become what it has beheld, and that is a colorless, lazy take on material without any effort to make it stand out in a sea of dystopian sameness. And don't get me started on how utterly bored Meryl Streep looks in her ridiculous wig. Appropriately enough, Bridges is the only one with any life in this film, but we've seen him doing this zen guru act before, so even he comes across as repeating himself. You want to give credit where credit is due, but as a stand-alone film in the context of today's YA sci-fi world, THE GIVER doesn't give us much to work with.