Deceptively packaged as a young-adult sci-fi adventure, director Phillip Noyce’s “The Giver” is in reality a beautiful tribute to individualism, the human spirit and the sanctity of life. Based on Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel, the author’s allegorical warning about a society that chooses to be protected from conflict, hurt feelings, grief, and fear in exchange for a piece of our soul, is even more urgent 20 years on.
Full equality has finally been achieved. Racism, illness, poverty, wealth inequality, lying, envy and crime have all been eliminated. There are no winners. There are no losers. The gene pool has been perfected. Utopia has been achieved … except of course it hasn’t.
The future is a flat colorless island surrounded by clouds and characterized by sameness. It’s not a Stepford Island. People aren’t robots. Children play, friendships are formed, there are families… But instead of a community, the world is a suburban office park — which suits its residents. Relationships, even between mother and child, are defined by propriety, formality.
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is 16. His childhood is now over and the time has come to take his place in society. That place is not up to him. Since Jonas was a child he, like everyone else, has been constantly monitored by a benevolent government that knows what’s best for him and society at large. The world needs gardeners, teachers, people to enforce order, women to birth babies, and medical personnel to decide which of those babies live up to government standards.
In a lavish ceremony hosted via hologram by The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), everyone, including Jonas’ two childhood friends are handed careers that surprise no one. Asher will pilot a surveillance drone, Fiona will care for newborn babies in the nursery/greenhouse. Jonas, however, is given the high and rare “honor” of carrying humanity’s memories, and The Giver (a splendid Jeff Bridges) will give them to him.
Although society has been “perfected,” knowledge of the past is still important. Someone must carry that record in order to advise The Elders. The fact that The Elders want no part of holding these memories is telling, and much is made of the horrible pain that comes with the job.
This “pain” is what you and I call living. If you experience love, you will almost certainly experience loss; distinguishing yourself can hurt the self-esteem of others; the butterfly effect of freedom is messy and sometimes tragic.
“The Giver” isn’t “Eat Pray Love” — it’s not a shockingly simplistic and stupid movie that celebrates narcissism. No one papers over the consequences that comes with allowing individuals to be individuals. When The Chief Elder says that when given a choice, people always choose wrong, she sounds wise not like a James Bond villain justifying villainy. “The Giver” just wants to remind us that the solution is worse than the problem … and that we are already on that slippery slope.
Though never preachy or heavy-handed, the story’s themes will resonate for anyone already feeling a little claustrophobic in an American society becoming more and more risk-averse by the day. If you look close enough at “The Giver,” it’s all there: helicopter parents; everyone gets a trophy; self-medicating away the anxieties of everyday life; how handing over your personal responsibilities to a nanny state is really the handing over of your personal liberty.
The movie asks…
Are Prozac and bike helmets and ObamaCare and play-dates really better than wrestling life to the ground, the wind in your hair, the pride that comes with the struggle of making your own way in the world, and growing up like The Little Rascals?
The movie understand that…
If you want to live in world where you can feel a child’s laughter instead of just hear it, see the trees instead of just look at them, and know the inexpressible joy of being awaken up by a cold wet nose attached to a puppy, then you will live in a world with war, famine, disease and dog poop.
On the issue of abortion, “The Giver” doesn’t fool around. Watching an otherwise decent man bloodlessly kill an unwanted baby, and feel nothing because society has taught him this life means nothing, is not science fiction. This abomination occurs more than a million times a year right here in America.
Bridges and Streep, both Oscar-winners, are terrific. Unlike Jodie Foster in “Elysium,” Streep creates a genuine human being out of a character willing to go to any length not to lose control. Bridges takes a real chance with his characterization of The Giver, and it should pay off with a supporting actor nomination.
At 94-minutes the story cooks and compels. The slow reveal of the clinical monstrosities required to craft this perfect society is truly fascinating. Jonas’ emotional and physical journey should keep the kids involved.
“The Giver” is rated PG-13 because it has the courage of its convictions. The moments are brief, but that a free man can be a lowdown son of a bitch is made clear.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC