The Giver, director Phillip Noyce’s handsomely wrought take on Lois Lowry’s bestseller, may suffer for sins not of its own making.
It’s the latest in the long line of movies — The Hunger Games, Divergent, Ender’s Game, The Host, How I Live Now — made from novels set in a dystopian future where a young person has heroism thrust upon their slim shoulders. So it’s impossible to look at The Giver and not see it as a Frankenstein film of sorts, a collection of cinematic spare parts and young-adult sci-fi cliches.
Yet, taken on its own, it’s a well-made and effectively told morality tale, spiced with some absolutely beautiful moments. It becomes heavy-handed in its third act but even that is not enough to totally undermine its pleasures.
Sometime in the future, long after some apocalypse has turned society to rubble, civilization has been reborn under the watchful eye of the Elders. Social and genetic engineering have removed all differences and there’s no conflict; everyone lives in sterile, well-ordered peace. (Though you wonder what happened to all the non-white people.) Even language has been purged of all words of deep emotion.
Then along comes Jonas (Brenton Thwaites from Maleficent and The Signal) who, along with all other young people coming of age, is to be assigned to his life’s profession. Whereas his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are to become child-care nurturers and pilots respectively, Jonas is chosen to be a “receiver,” the one selected to remember all of human history, well before this new society wiped everything clean.
His teacher is the Giver (Jeff Bridges) — his predecessor — who will pass along all of his knowledge. Nervous about the transition is the Chief Elder (a miscast Meryl Streep) because the last young person chosen to be a receiver disappeared mysteriously.
The Giver’s message — that the place we find our humanity is in the rough-and-tumble between love and hate, war and peace — is hardly new. It seems like every other episode of Star Trek had Captains Kirk or Picard telling some emotionless alien race that, hey, humans may be creatures of violence and brutality but we’ve got these little things called love, hope, free will and generosity of spirit too, and they’re pretty cool.
What makes The Giver stand out is how it’s envisioned. Noyce — best-known for the likes of Patriot Games, though it’s his smaller movies like Rabbit-Proof Fence that are more emblematic — exhibits a painterly eye as the film, paralleling Jonas’ view of the world, moves from stark black-and-white to sepia-shaded tones to joyous color.
There are moments that echo such films as Life of Pi and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, two other works where the individual undergoes a journey that makes him see the world in a new, color-saturated and life-affirming way.
Never mind that Streep doesn’t have much to do but look tense. Never mind that the theme has been rehashed many times before.
Noyce proves that it’s not always the story, it’s the storyteller.