The fatal irony at the heart of The Giver is too hilariously blatant to ignore: here is a dystopian teen drama about the perils of sameness that feels exactly like all of the other movies in its increasingly crowded genre.
That being said, The Giver has a semi-decent excuse. The film, which veteran director Phillip Noyce is powerless to protect against an embarrassing script by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, was adapted from Lois Lowry’s seminal 1993 novel of the same name, a cornerstone of contemporary YA fiction that paved the way for the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. But if a film version of The Giver was always going to be rendered somewhat familiar by virtue of its legacy, there’s no reason that it had to be this compromised and complacent. There's no reason why it had to be so informed by the stories derived from its source material that it ultimately embraces the blind conformity that Lowry implores readers to recognize and destroy.
Even if you don’t know the story you know the story. At some unspecified time in the distant future, the last vestiges of known civilization have begun operating under the principle that being human just isn’t worth it, forgoing the sweet so long as they never have to taste the sour. Everyone wears the same thing. Everyone repeats the same wonky future-speak (brace for a supercut of Katie Holmes barking “Precision of language!”). Everyone mindlessly obeys the commands of transparently evil government forces. It’s all too fitting that The Giver is set during a period referred to as “The Sameness," a period in which all people serve a pre-ordained function and are denied access to love, color, and dreams lest those insidious forces destabilize the system. It’s an era that our wide-eyed hero inevitably ends in the movie but inadvertently reinforces in the multiplexes.
And oh yes, there is a hero. A chosen one! Because where would these hapless lemmings even be without some boring, slack-jawed white kid to have a pubescent epiphany and save them from themselves? Of course, The Giver shakes things up a bit by making everyone white and everyone boring–the residents of the Community might pride themselves on not being racist, but it’s hard to be racist when there’s only one race. While the film is peppered with the occasional black extra, their presence underscores that every speaking part belongs to a white actor, and calls attention to the extreme sloppiness of the world-building.
The Chosen One is a 16-year-old kid named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, a 25-year-old man who looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch store smells). Narcotized and unremarkable save for the fact that he has no idea of his purpose, Jonas feels different from his childhood best friends, Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush). Jonas’ worst fears are confirmed when the job placement Ceremony–naturally presided over by a hologram Meryl Streep–reveals that he is destined to be unique. To the shock of his giddily sycophantic parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård), Jonas is chosen to be the next Receiver of Memories, the only person in the Community who will be exposed to the sensations of the past world so that he might pass them down to future generations.
A grizzled and mealymouthed Jeff Bridges, apparently reprising his role from R.I.P.D., plays Jonas’ eponymous mentor. He’s really easy to identify because, at one point, he actually looks into the camera and says, “I guess I’m The Giver." Or maybe it’s “You can call me The Giver”? Whatever he says, he’s obviously been waiting to say it for a long time, as Bridges has been trying to make this movie happen for nearly 20 years.
Unfortunately, The Giver is gutted by its mimicry of the same films that finally convinced people to fund this one. The movie all but electroshocks itself at the slightest hint of a unique or exciting idea. Whenever a moment in Noyce’s film benefits from having a comparatively smaller scale, it launches into an unmotivated set-piece. Whenever Ross Emery’s strikingly artificial black and white cinematography manages to enrich the story’s focus on the fluidity of perception, it introduces a garish flash of YouTube footage to substitute for "memory." Whenever The Giver threatens to become an unexpected homoerotic love story about an old man who telepathically induces a teenage boy into orgasm (Jonas receives memories with a very particular look of rapture), it becomes a much more tedious sort of coming-of-age story.
Lowry’s novel may have bothered to explain why the Community’s evil Elders would allow a random kid to be granted the knowledge capable of uprooting their society, but the film certainly doesn’t. There simply isn’t any time. Noyce is given one movie to tell the same amount of story that is now typically split across four, a blessing that only becomes a curse because The Giver obediently betrays itself in order to appear more like the franchise quadrilogies that its source material inspired. As it stands, Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder effectively imbues a dumb teenager with the power of a nuclear warhead, and then spends the rest of the film being surprised at the repercussions. On the other hand, the teenage and adult viewers for whom Lowry’s story has been aged up will be miles ahead of the plot, and forced to endure Noyce’s most tedious third act since The Bone Collector.
The people in The Giver are the victims of philosophy without practice, and the film about them is left to suffer the same fate. What was once a broadly accessible parable about the power of words and the value of individualism has been reduced to a generic tale about restoring memory that forgets everything that made it worth telling in the first place.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.