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Little to receive from ‘The Giver’

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER  
For 21st Century Media

As “The Giver” opens, the viewer is immersed in what seems to be a Utopian paradise during some indeterminate time. Instead of a bleak, futuristic look, the setting is comforting and sun-dappled. We are surrounded by retro, modular architecture, clothing styles, and other period tidbits that subliminally suggest the bygone ’50s. Everyone seems to have a vague sense of contentment plastered on their face. Collectively, this is evocative of a simpler time, before the advent of post-modernist strife.
Indeed, in this microcosm, people no longer experience pain, sadness, war, or for that matter any of the lamentable truths of the so-called real world. Moreover, there is no racial or ethnic conflict. Perhaps, you won’t notice or ascribe any intentionality to the fact, but throughout the film, we see an uninterrupted wave of pale, Eurocentric faces.
We meet our fresh-scrubbed protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young teen, who is about 16 years old. He is cavorting with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), who are similarly wholesome in appearance. There isn’t a single piercing or tattoo among them. In fact, you won’t see any such expressions of individuality anywhere in this film.
The trio is eagerly looking forward to an upcoming ceremony. In it, these three and each of their peers will be assigned to a job, which will last them for a lifetime (shades of “Divergent”).

This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Brenton Thwaites in a scene from "The Giver." (AP Photo/ The Weinstein Company)

This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Brenton Thwaites in a scene from “The Giver.” (AP Photo/ The Weinstein Company)

Why is this an ideal methodology? After all, wouldn’t you like to have some choice in what your profession will be? As we incrementally learn, this isn’t such a wonderful world after all. Not only do citizens have their jobs designated, they are assigned spouses and children. So much for the basic human instinct to procreate. Where do babies come from — test tubes?
The film is silent on the issue of whether sex is even allowed in this Brave New World. Do people really have the self-discipline to deny themselves such pleasures? In addition, lying, stealing, fighting and all other base behavior have all been abolished. Are people able to voluntarily refrain from such misconduct for the good of Society?
Oh — did I neglect to mention that upon waking, each resident receives their daily mandatory injection? Apparently, in this carefully-controlled society, each person is engulfed in a perpetual, pharmaceutically-induced haze, stripped of any scintilla of free will. Moreover, the notion of privacy is obsolete. People’s homes are subject to 24/7 surveillance. The Elders, a cabal of unelected leaders, can be trusted to know what is best for each and every zombified member of the Community-right?
At the assignment ceremony, a nameless woman, known only as the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) appears by hologram. Privately, she disdainfully espouses the credo, “If people had the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.” That’s a cheery, little testament to the capacity of the human race.
With the exception of Jonas, the Chief Elder ticks off the name of each member of the graduating class and specifies their assignment. Has the lad somehow been overlooked? Has he been relegated to assignment purgatory? Not at all-Jonas is about to have a special honor bestowed upon him.
While all of his contemporaries have been tasked with mundane jobs, it is announced that Jonas will become the so-called Receiver of Memory. Pretty snazzy title-don’t you think? It’s actually a highly elite, top-secret role, which has been vacant for a decade. Jonas will serve as an apprentice to a high-ranking official, ominously known only as The Giver (Jeff Bridges). I couldn’t help but wondering what his close friends and family address him as — Your Exalted Giveship?
The Giver lives all alone in a state of solitude. He is surrounded by stacks of books, which rise to cathedral-like ceilings of his abode. Are these tomes supposed to contain all of the knowledge that humankind has accrued over the millennia? Excuse me — is the film supposedly set in the post-Internet era or are they stuck back in Medieval times? Are piles of books still considered to be the fullest and most convenient compendium of all the knowledge that the human race has collected over time? What’s with the anachronism?
“The Giver” is derived from a book of the same name by Lois Lowry. When it was published in 1993, “The Giver” elicited an extremely polarized response. It won the prestigious Newberry Award and numerous other accolades. Many schools placed it on their required reading lists. The American Library Association gave it the William Allen White Award as Best Book for Young Adults. The organization also placed it on their list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.
Particularly disturbing in the book and depicted again on screen is the institutionalized practice of neonatal euthanasia to achieve genetic tranquility. The Society also engages in a practice known as release. In case you haven’t guessed, that euphemism denotes the killing of any person, who is deemed obsolete.
Fondly recalled for such memorable turns as the Dude in “The Big Lebowski” and Rooster Cogburn in the “True Grit” remake, Jeff Bridges bought the screen rights to the book about 15 years ago. He purchased it with the notion of casting his father, veteran actor Lloyd Bridges (television’s long-running “Sea Hunt”), in the lead role. The project languished for years, during which time Bridges lost then reacquired the screen rights to the book. In the interim, the senior Bridges died and his son decided to assume the meatiest role. Finally, the Weinstein Brothers green lit the film.
After all these years of waiting and despite the presence of two luminaries in the cast, “The Giver” ends up being a total disaster. The source novel is conceptually-driven and introspective. It has virtually no action to speak of, other than an isolated, downhill sled ride. Since the book lacks inherent cinematicity, the film is dramatically inert. The gradients of time and place are abstract, essentially non-existent. Certain characters experience epiphanies, which are abrupt and without adequate foreshadowing. Even a cameo appearance by pop star, Taylor Swift, is thoroughly wasted. The book is intended as a cautionary tale about the perils of acquiescing to an authoritarian state. The film fails to explicate the essence of Lowry’s vision. We are presented with an adaptation, which is conceptually muddled and iconographically repugnant. Despite its lofty title, you’ll receive nothing substantive from this film.
Some might regard the cloistered, trouble-free world depicted in “The Giver” to be heaven on Earth. I consider its pervasive loss of free will and oppressive conformity to be hell. Give me the messy reality of the human condition every time.
“The Giver”
*1/2 PG-13 (for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence) 94 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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