When I first saw a trailer for “The Giver” earlier this summer, I thought it looked like “Equilibrium” for the “Hunger Games” set. That 2002 Christian Bale film has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. As it turns out, the book upon which “The Giver” is based predates “Equilibrium” by a decade, and is in many ways considered the grandpappy of the current Young Adult sci-fi dystopia craze. Unfortunately, Grandpa is showing his age.
“The Giver” is getting a lot of respect in conservative circles for its message and morality. Its heart is unquestionably in the right place. Made in the mid-90s, it would have seemed revolutionary. But it reminds me of Disney’s expensive, ill-fated effort to make a “John Carter of Mars” movie after the character had been around for a century, and his story had already been strip-mined by numerous works known better to modern audiences. Devotees of classic science fiction who heard younger audience members grumble that John Carter’s green Tharks were just like the blue Navi from “Avatar” must have been grinding their teeth. Likewise for any lifelong fan of “The Giver” who heard half the audience whisper that the “totalitarian rulers assign kids to their vocations” scene was already done better in “Divergent.”
Missing from “The Giver” is the sense of fun and supercharged action that drives its YA progeny. Again, with all due respect to both the literary achievement of the original novel and the great wisdom of the message this movie seeks to impart, it’s slooooow and talky. I could sum up its structural problems by describing the grand finale, but to avoid spoilers, let me just say it’s the polar opposite of the thrilling action sequences that have capped off the big Young Adult movie hits. The cast is just fine, but nobody here is generating the incandescent heat of Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley, and in the absence of such charisma, we’re left with a low-key take on the basic Young Adult dystopia template: young hero is assigned a station in life he rejects, and rebels against his torpid society. The rebellion just isn’t that exciting this time around.
I hate to say that, because the basic idea of a society running on autopilot with both its positive and negative emotions numbed, utterly stagnant and so morally blinkered that it thinks clinical, dispassionate murder is preferable to the risk of war and crime, remains intriguing. The idea that such a society was also provided with what amounts to a fail-safe mechanism by its designers is also interesting. That would be the Receiver of Memory, the one and only person in this drab (literally monochrome at first) society who is allowed to remember the past in all its glory and pain. When the old Receiver trains a replacement, he becomes The Giver, a role filled here by a positively antediluvian Jeff Bridges, who is said to have been the driving force behind getting this movie made, and puts considerable effort into the role.
The Receiver of Memory bears the heavy burden of carrying the knowledge of all that humanity was before the vaguely-referenced apocalyptic war that led to the creation of a drugged, emotionally numb, obedient hive that looks to be living in a huge version of Disneyworld’s Tomorrowland. Until he or she is ready to retire and chooses a trainee, the Receiver has to bear this burden entirely alone, forbidden to explicity discuss what he knows with anyone; he lives alone on the literal edge of the known world. That’s a heavy concept, and Bridges looks to have given some thought to how it would slowly grind down even the most successful Receivers (and break the failed trainees, as shown in a remarkably well-acted cameo by singer Taylor Swift.) He’s the only one who fully understands the trade of all liberty for absolute security his fellow citizens have made. The only thing really missing from Bridges’ characterization is some understanding of why generations of previous Receivers allowed this heartless insectoid society to continue without protest, until now.
The best dystopian science fiction makes sense at some level. The setting must seem like it evolved for a good reason, and would endure until the cataclysmic events we are witnessing. The world of “The Hunger Games,” for example, is chillingly plausible; it’s a meditation on tyranny that does a great job of convincing the audience that its evil system could endure for a century, until the Girl On Fire came along. “Divergent” was a bit less convincing, at least with the information presented in the first film. “The Giver” is totally unconvincing, a half-sketched world that relies heavily on some form of mental telepathy that is never explained at all, using what amounts to magic to make its city-in-the-clouds work, and also to engineer its downfall. Even the geography doesn’t make much sense, to the point where it seems like some shattering discovery about the true nature of the world (a la “Dark City”) might be coming, but no. There isn’t much surprising in the revelations of past knowledge provided to our hero by The Giver, because while it’s all new to him, it’s all familiar to us. There just isn’t much drama in this film, and that’s a much bigger problem than the lack of supercharged action.
But yes, its heart is in the right place. The best line of dialogue in the movie is delivered by Meryl Streep’s frosty dictator, and has been heavily featured in the promos: When people are free to make their own decisions, they choose wrong. Even more than readers of the book in the Nineties, movie audiences of 2014 have heard that line of thinking expressed in the real world outside their windows, along with the sort of reasoning about disposing of inconvenient life that leads to a quietly shocking scene with Alexander Skarsgard – the one scene that really makes “The Giver” memorable, because it will get under your skin more than a hundred blood-drenched slasher films ever could. This is a very respectable movie that teaches a lesson about how life, freedom, risk, reward, and pain are inextricably linked, and if some allegedly benevolent dictatorship comes up with a way to get rid of the pain, all the other things are erased, too. Unfortunately, it’s not as entertaining as the best of the young-adult fiction that caught fire after this story was written.