Sunday, February 18, 2018
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'The Giver' has little left to give overdone teen dystopia genre

The film version of The Giver is briskly directed in bright, confident strokes, scripted to emphasize its thought-provoking qualities and acted by players "all in" on the future they're portraying.

As adaptations of young adult sci-fi go, it holds its own against the many successes of this "teens save the future" genre.

But coming to screens after Divergent, The Hunger Games, Ender's Game and The Host, it underlines the dearth of original ideas in this genre. Seriously, if Hollywood serves up one more crypto-fascist future where only a "Chosen One" can make us remember the humanity we have lost, I'm fleeing the theater.

Lois Lowry's 1993 novel is about Jonas (Aussie Brenton Thwaites), a teen who is about to graduate from childhood with his "best friends forever" (Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan). They're to be told what they'll spend their lives doing — everything from "Drone Pilot" to "Nurturer" (childcare specialist).

The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) thanks each "for your childhood" in a big ceremony, and since they're all medicated at the start of every day, nobody questions this. Everyone sees the world monochromatically — literally. "Sameness" rules their rules.

"I don't want to be different. Who would?"

But Jonas is different. He's got the mark on his wrist, and he's to be a "Receiver." In a world without strife, struggle, rudeness or even bad grammar — "precise language!" — Jonas will be given that gift that few share: memory, the collective history of the World before The Ruin.

It was a time, the sage "Giver" (Jeff Bridges) intones, "when things were different. When there was more." More of everything from races and religions to emotions and sensations and even real estate.

Bridges makes the Giver jowly-growly, but never a cute old coot. He is a haunted man with an official mission and a secret one, to make Jonas see beyond this world and what it lacks.

Perfect planned "communities" on the top of a cloud-shrouded plateau are the only world any of these people know. The Giver is the keeper of memories because his class is responsible for advising the elders on matters that keep this politically correct/strife-free utopia utopian.

Jonas absorbs the history and starts seeing the world in color, as it truly is. And he starts to develop morality, independent thinking and rebellious thoughts.

As the villain of this world, the Chief Elder intent on preserving the "Sameness," Streep reminds us that the best villains don't see themselves that way. Then there's her Chief of Security, Jonas's mother (Katie Holmes). She didn't give birth to him. She just raised him. Maybe that's why she has no trouble ratting out her kid's increasingly human tendencies.

I love the literalness of it all, the Orwellian euphemisms Lowry cooked up for death ("elsewhere") and the once-playful plush toys that quiet noisy babies ("comfort object").

But all that said, this 96-minute, self-contained drama is flatly undramatic. Lowry's dystopia — she did four books — is richly allegorical (she won the Newbery Medal for this) but derivative, much imitated but imitative.

Everything from the costumes to the circumscribed PC speech ("I apologize." "I accept your apology.") feels over-familiar, and the quest summons up sci-fi deja vu.

So while The Giver scores points for being smarter and deeper than The Hunger Games or its inferior copy Divergent, coming after all those other versions of this plot does neither it nor us any favors. The Giver has nothing new to offer.

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