All these young adult dystopian movies are starting to run together in my head.
“The Hunger Games” pictures,” “Divergent” and now “The Giver,” all posit future societies where dissent is suppressed and individuality is repressed, and only the young have the courage to challenge and overthrow the established order.
What marks them all, and what is especially pronounced in “The Giver,” is an insufficiency of vitality in the storytelling and a lack of a sense of humor. There’s nothing funny about the imagined future, folks, and these pictures never let you forget it for a minute.
“The Giver,” based on the Newbery Medal-winning 1993 best-selling novel by Lois Lowry, seems particularly afflicted with another trait common to movies targeted to young adults, and that’s a suffocating sense of reverence for its source material. Director Phillip Noyce (“Patriot Games”), working from a screenplay credited to Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, has delivered a carefully made picture that’s quite faithful to Lowry’s book and delivers the novel’s core messages with all the subtlety of a two-by-four applied smartly to the skull.
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In the future in “The Giver,” everyone is peaceful, contented and calm, with the peaceableness enforced by a set of ironclad rules — obey or die — and the contentment induced by mandatory daily dosages of tranquilizing drugs.
Color has been banished from this world in the furtherance of a so-called narcotizing “Sameness” that is the operating principle of the society depicted, and so Noyce has filmed the early sections in black and white.
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), the lead character, is a teen chosen to receive the collective buried memories of what society was like before “Sameness” was imposed by the government. Those memories are delivered by the title character played by a bearded Jeff Bridges with the raspy rumble he previously deployed in the wonderful “True Grit” and the awful “R.I.P.D.” Memories are imparted by fleshy contact. Giver and Jonas grip forearms and — Shazam! — the magic happens.
The kid learns to perceive colors as Noyce gradually lets bright hues leach into his images. He learns about love — derided as an “antiquated” word by his mom, played by Katie Holmes with deep-chilled eyes. He absorbs memories of pain and loss. He is introduced to music, also banished from this sterile world.
Alas, even in the musical passages, one of which features Taylor Swift in a small role, “The Giver” does not sing. Instead, it plods. When Bridges’ Giver rhapsodizes about the power of music to lift the human spirit, the speech is delivered with such earnestness that it negates the message he means to convey.
Meryl Streep has a few scenes as the leader of the movie's futuristic society in which the steely malevolence behind her calm façade epitomizes the society she leads.
But for a movie about a kid who rediscovers the unruly vitality that defines humanity, “The Giver” never truly comes to life.