For a book about breaking the bonds of conformity — among other things — the movie version of The Giver sure is conventional. It’s stilted and dull, as dreary as the drab monochrome used by director Phillip Noyce to bring Lois Lowry’s utopian dystopia to life. In this post-Ruin world, known as Community, a strict social order has been established, one built on biological certainties, pre-planned futures, and medically removed memories. Indeed, no one remembers the past in The Giver. They also experience no pain, no joy, no excitement, or intense emotions of any kind. The audience will feel the same way after watching this high-minded dud.
As with all Young Adult genre fiction turned to celluloid, we have an unlikely hero in Jonas (Australian Brenton Twaites, doing the American accent thing). He is a relatively normal teen about to “graduate” and learn his new assigned job. When everyone else, including friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) find their place — caregiver and drone pilot, respectively — the Senior Elder (Meryl Streep) announces she has no such position for our lead. Instead, he is a chosen one (oh, that again), destined to become The Receiver of Memory.
His job will be to replace the current Receiver of Memory (Jeff Bridges), who serves as a kind of “reminder” of what life was like before Community. His job is to aid in decisions where there is no frame of reference by using what came before. As he stops taking his government prescribed injects and starts to see the world in multicolored complexity, Jonas wants to share his newfound sensations with everyone. When shown he cannot, he rebels, hoping a journey beyond the boundaries of his stoic, sterile existence will open up a pathway to bringing the past back.
While it looks good and provides some nice future shock talking points, The Giver is glum. It’s a dull, dimensionless slog that sees the central premise of its allegory — the robot sameness of its populace — taken far too literally from an artistic standpoint. Everyone here, from Streep to co-stars Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård (as Jonas’ parents), puts on a brave, blank face, rendering the entire citizenship of Community as plain and dry as a Depression-era dustbowl.
Indeed, they take their portrayal so seriously that you walk away wondering why they even bothered to hire actors at all. Statues could have provided the same level of emotional heft that this cast creates. Even Bridges, capable of feelings and painful memories from his life, is stuck doing his shaggy dog shtick. Apparently, even in a not-too-distant planned place of compliance, there’s one old coot with a “shoot me a Sarsaparilla” speaking style.
By the time Jonas learns the big secret here (anyone who’s seen Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and any number of ’70s sci-fi social commentaries will get it long before our hero does) and goes rogue, we no longer care what happens. We don’t invest ourselves in the outcome and don’t even care if our villain (Streep) gets her comeuppance. Because The Giver is built out of banality, both narratively and onscreen, we become as docile and complacent as the people Jonas is acting out against.
This turns the movie into a weird meta experience in which the main lead is yelling at the viewer to feel things we are incapable of experiencing. Maybe with a better set of actors (though Streep and Bridges bring their best non-paycheck-cashing Oscar-baiting A-game) or a less exacting recreation of Lowry’s ideas, we wouldn’t feel so disconnected. The Giver feels like one of those films that should have deviated wildly from its source lest it sink under the weight of its desire to be authentic. By staying true to what Ms. Lowry envisioned, this film ends up as washed-out as the world she created.