[Screen It]

"THE GIVER"
(2014) (Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi: A teen who lives in a futuristic utopia discovers that things aren't as idyllic as they seem when he's chosen to be the lone receiver of memories of humankind's past bad behavior.
PLOT:
In a future utopian society that was created following an apocalyptic event known as The Ruin, teenager Jonas (BRENTON THWAITES) lives with his father (ALEXANDER SKARSGARD), mother (KATIE HOLMES) and younger sister, Lily (EMMA TREMBLAY). All of humanity's bad behaviors and thoughts have been removed from everyone's consciousness and everyday behavior, meaning there's no anger, fear, greed, envy or other such emotions.

During an annual ceremony conducted by the Chief Elder (MERYL STREEP), Jonas waits with his best friends, Fiona (ODEYA RUSH) and Asher (CAMERON MONAGHAN), to see what their roles in life will be. While she's selected to be a nurturer of babies and Asher is chosen to be a drone pilot, Jonas is hand-picked to be the new holder of memories of humankind's sordid and troubled past and indiscretions. The current possessor of them, The Giver (JEFF BRIDGES), is to work with Jonas to impart those memories over to him, meaning the teen will experience things -- good and bad -- that he never previously was aware of.

As he does, Jonas comes to realize there's far more to life than what everyone is allowed to experience, such as love, as well as knowledge that the current leaders have really only disguised certain abominable behaviors. As he tries to get Fiona to experience the same, he realizes he must take matters into his own hands, not only to save himself but also an infant who's now under his protection.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Unlike most critics who are looking for some degree of art in most every film they see, the vast majority of everyday moviegoers are looking for escapism. Sure, they occasionally want to see weighty and acclaimed films that touch on or delve into weighty subjects, but for the most part, they want to get away from it all and escape for a few hours in a dark theater or on the comfort of their living room couch.

That's certainly one of the reasons why films that feature storylines about fantastical stories and characters are so popular and where the ability to suspend belief comes in quite handy. After all, if you didn't believe -- at least for a short time -- in The Force, young wizards, time travel, the cloning of dinosaurs and extraordinary characters with unique abilities, it would have been hard to sit through let alone enjoy "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "Back to the Future," "Jurassic Park" and your choice of a plethora of superhero movies.

A subgenre of that niche of moviemaking that requires some but not always full suspension of disbelief is the one featuring future dystopian societies along the lines of "The Hunger Games." While far-fetched, there's usually some semblance of reality that viewers can recognize and think -- to one degree or another -- "You know, that actually could happen if we're not careful."

That was presumably some of the intent behind Lois Lowry writing "The Giver," the 1993 American children's novel featuring a utopian society that's eventually revealed to be ever more dystopian. I never read the work, but hear it was quite popular (selling more than 10 million copies worldwide) and generally well-received, including winning the 1994 Newbery Medal (for the most distinguished contribution to American children's literature).

Considering the success of "The Hunger Games" and others of that young adult literature ilk, it's no surprise that this work is finally getting its due with a big screen adaptation. Alas, I just never bought into the concept and execution of the story as adapted by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, and helmed by director Phillip Noyce.

Don't get me wrong. I get the attractiveness of the theme of wanting to be different from everyone else (thus the likely draw of this work to those who already felt that way upon reading the novel), and certainly have no issues with dystopian-related movie storylines (one of my all-time favorites is "Logan's Run"). And this may very well be yet another example of a movie where a few script tweaks and explanations could have made everything go down, with or without a spoonful of sugar.

The plot revolves around a teenager (25-year-old Brenton Thwaites looking too old for the part, although not to a Stockard "I'm in 'Grease'" Channing extent) who's hand-selected by one of his society's "elders" (a completely wasted Meryl Streep apparently wanting in on a cut of the potential for a "Hunger Games" sort of payday) to be the lone receiver of memories of humankind's best and worst times before an unspecified and presumably apocalyptic event only briefly mentioned in the opening as "The Ruin."

The person who's to pass down these memories -- that being the title character -- is played by none other than Jeff Bridges. He's only okay in the part, even if it's not as fleshed out as I would have liked and he sounds like he's talking with a mouthful of cotton or some other partially muffling substance.

You see, to avoid the problems of their predecessors, the powers that be have decided to eliminate memories of the past, along with most emotions, especially of the negative variety. They've also eliminated color (apparently from a daily injection that also stymies those pesky feelings) in an attempt to create "sameness" and thus avoid envy, ridicule and such (not to mention having the opening scenes of the film presented in black and white). Of course, anybody with a lick of sense would ponder how eliminating color would overcome obvious differences in gender, age, height, weight, facial features, vocal tones and so on.

Granted, having everyone in the film appear identical would be confusing (although it would obviously work in a book, but I don't know if that's the case here), but since that's not used, I simply didn't buy the notion and that took me out of the flick as I pondered the elder's decision making process. I also wondered how some sort of electronic device on the forbidden outskirts of this society manages to suppress everyone's memories that would flood their heads should it be defeated. Or how infanticide could be performed by a "caregiver" who wouldn't recognize the suddenly lifeless body in front of him that he then disposes without questioning what he's just done.

Since all of these plot and conceptual problems were so numerous, I could never get into the story that follows the usual route of the protagonist deciding to break free from their societal constraints and thus run the risk of being chased, captured and maybe even killed. Considering how much palpable fear and suspense Noyce created all those years ago in "Dead Calm" (where Billy Zane's character terrorized Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman's married couple at sea characters), it's all the more disappointing that the chase and "danger" scenes here lacked that same degree of dread and suspense. And the overall storyline isn't anywhere as interesting and chilling -- in terms of being a dystopian thriller -- as what occurred in "Logan's Run."

While fans of the original work might get into this filmed adaptation, I came in cold and left even chillier in terms of appreciating what the movie was trying to be and how all of that was executed. Perhaps if everything made more logical sense -- even considering the required suspension of disbelief -- I might have liked this better. As it stands, it's a waste of Streep and Bridges' talent, comes off as fairly boring, and doesn't deserve to be passed down as a memory for any future society, dystopian or not. "The Giver" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed July 30, 2014 / Posted August 15, 2014


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