“The Giver”—directed by Phillip Noyce, based on the children’s dystopian future book by Lois Lowry—is set in a society where everything is the same. No one is better than anyone else, no one questions anything, and there’s no such thing as choice. All emotion—including love—has been eliminated and The Elders—aka the government-- have wiped away all memories. In other words, it sounds like your typical dystopian world. To emphasize this sameness however, Noyce—and cinematographer Ross Emery—have shot the movie partially in black and white and only when our young hero Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) bites into the apple of knowledge and experiences all things characteristic of a normal person does the movie slowly gain color.
As gimmicky as this sounds the visual choice actually kind of works. The black and white photography gives the early scenes a slightly eerie look and the transition from black and white to color gives the movie at least somewhat distinctive from other dystopian future movies. Unfortunately, that’s really the only distinct thing about “The Giver;” a bloodless, emotionless and heavy-handed picture full of lifeless characters.
The movie gets off to a bad start with a voiceover narration by Jonas that neatly sets up the world for the viewer and continues throughout the picture to make the plot points and thematic points even clearer than they are. “The Giver” is another example of a movie that does more telling than showing, providing over-explanation when it’s not needed.
On the day of his transition from boyhood to adulthood Jonas gets selected to be a receiver. That is one who receives all of the memories and emotions from the past. You see, when you get to be old enough The Elders select a profession based on your personality; some are chosen as birth givers, while some are chosen to be caregivers, some are chosen to be drone pilots and every so often someone is selected to be receiver. Not a very big job market.
But what personality? In this society I thought no one is allowed to be different? Jonas is selected as the receiver because he possesses all qualities—he’s smart, courageous, and caring—but wait a moment, I thought everyone is supposed to be the same? And why is Jonas so special? He doesn’t do anything that would make one think he’d be a good chosen boy. All we see him do at the beginning is ride a bike with his friends. I guess he’s special because we’re told he’s special…because it’s in the material. Anyway, Jonas goes to meet with the old man known as The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who has lots of knowledge and transfers that knowledge to Jonas via his mind. Once Jonas experiences what it’s like to have human emotions and actions, he realizes that the society’s whole way of life is all wrong. Bet you didn’t see that coming. Naturally, this upsets the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep, collecting a paycheck).
At ninety-four minutes “The Giver” is surprisingly brief. It feels like Noyce is trying to get through the material as fast as he can; as if he’s not even interested in it. Just about every scene is in service to the plot, instead of character development. And the scenes that are relatively interesting—the “giving” sessions between Giver and Jonas—aren’t given enough time to breathe. The picture sets up a world but doesn’t want to explore it much and as mentioned in the previous paragraph the rules of the world are confusing. So, as the movie races to its inevitable conclusion, you don’t care about a majority of what happens. Except for The Giver—Bridges manages to give a witty and sincere performance—every character is bloodless, including our hero Jonas who somehow remains robotic and cold even when he’s experiencing human qualities. I don’t really want to come down too hard on newcomer Thwaites but as far as chosen people are concerned his Jonas is sort of a blank slate, failing to make much of an impression. And the only reason he manages to make even a small impression is because the supporting characters are virtually nonexistent.
Now, in regards to the lifelessness of the characters, you could say: but that’s the point, they’re supposed to be cold because it’s a dystopia. To that I say: that’s a lousy excuse to not create interesting characters and at the very least you still need to make the movie engaging and entertaining. The juvenile delinquent characters in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian future picture “A Clockwork Orange” were also cold but that movie had had attitude, and most importantly it had personality. “The Giver” doesn’t have personality; instead it just goes along, blandly and flatly hitting its beats.
For being a dystopian future movie, “The Giver” lacks tension and thrills. I’m not saying the movie has to be action packed, and clearly Noyce is not trying to make another “Divergent” or “Hunger Games.” He tries to focus more on ideas than action but unfortunately not much insight is revealed. The message of the movie is that emotions are what make us human and that it’s not a good idea to erase past memories and keep everyone ignorant. OK, fine, but this “revelation” is evident within the first frames of the movie due to that damn voice-over. And yet, in order for there to be a feature length movie, Noyce has to keep hitting us over the head with it for the duration of the running time. Heavy-handedness isn’t a new thing in dystopian future movies—especially ones aimed at kids—but if the movie itself isn’t compelling enough to make the heavy-handedness tolerable then after awhile we’re just being lectured to.
“The Giver” is by no means a brainless movie but any interesting ideas it has are undone by an utterly boring execution.