Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Know "The Giver" Looks Like All Those Other Young Adult Dystopian Movies, but It's a Bit Different...and It's Decent...Watch It, I Guess...or Don't...Whatever.

The Giver
This is The Giver at its best...save the chase sequences for Divergent.
Young adult (or YA) dystopian thrillers are quite prevalent of late with the popularity of The Hunger Games series to the point that many films, such as Divergent, don’t feel very different.  Because of this popularity, it was inevitable that Lois Lowry’s beloved novel The Giver would be up for adaptation.  Fans of the book will likely come away pleased (as long as they are willing to accept the inevitable changes an adaptation brings), though regular audiences might not see enough here to differentiate this from other properties.  The Giver deserves a bit of attention, however, if for no other reason than the fact that the filmmakers refrained from tacking on a love triangle.

The Giver is similar to other properties (or other properties are similar to it, since the book was written long before most of the other franchises) in that it takes place in a vaguely futuristic society in which individualism is seen as dangerous, and everyone should accept whatever fate the elders hand down to them.  The other mainstay of YA dystopian thrillers concerns the past.  In films like The Hunger Games or Divergent the characters know of a past that led them to their “harmonious” societies, but it is a fictionalized past drilled into them by the ruling class.  In The Giver, they simply don’t know about the past…and don’t want to.  It was decided that only one person, the Receiver of Memory, will keep all of humanity’s memories (good and bad) as a way to guide the elders so that the same mistakes are never made again. 

This makes the central idea behind The Giver compelling, both on the screen and page.  The message that the world, no matter how ordered and peaceful, isn’t worth living in if actual humanity ceases to exist is important, especially for younger viewers.  In fact, it might be even more worthwhile for older viewers who might be jaded about how awful the real world can often be since most can probably agree that our sometimes crappy reality is much more worthwhile than a society in which we have family “units,” receive daily “injections” that destroy our emotions, and are allotted “comfort objects” as children. 

Director Phillip Noyce (Salt) does an excellent job of making the world of The Giver the type of place a modern-day audience member would despise.  First off, it’s in black and white.  The world itself, not just the movie.  In an effort to create “sameness,” the creators of this society removed color along with memory, freedom, independence, and pretty much anything else that makes life enjoyable.  I was happy to find that the bulk of the movie is in black and white.  I was worried they would change it up fearing that teens would avoid a black and white movie (the previews, however, were almost completely in color).  The stark images of this society capture the mood of the book.

Of course, any adaptation of a book is going to include changes to the source material.  I was okay with most of the changes, but a few hurt the movie more than helped it.  First off, the attempt to add action to the climax of the film felt like pandering to an audience used to brutal fight scenes in their YA movies.  It didn’t look very good, and it just prolonged the movie rather than add suspense.  Second, and more importantly, it changed the world a bit in that it made it seem like more people knew about the past other than the Receiver and the Giver, and regular people seemed to be capable of feeling emotions at times, even if they had their injections.  All of this was done to add conflict, but breaking the rules of the established world weakens and/or alters the film’s message.  But perhaps I’m just being nitpicky since I read the book very recently.

Slight issues aside, The Giver still sets itself apart from the rest as a more thoughtful film.  This is helped immensely by the casting of Jeff Bridges as the Giver.  He looks a bit goofy (he tends to stare around with his mouth open) at times, but in his scenes with the Receiver (Brenton Thwaites, who holds his own in scenes with Bridges but seems to be on autopilot in the rest of the film) Bridges shows that he was the best choice for the role.  His voice is naturally tailored to deliver sage-like advice.  In fact, the film’s biggest flaw is that there are too few moments between Bridges and Thwaites.  It seems that the film is in too big of a hurry to insert some unnecessary action.  Ironically, those action moments are incredibly boring compared to the scenes with Bridges in a library.  Ten more minutes of memory sharing with Bridges would’ve have improved the film immensely. 

The rest of the cast is impressive, featuring Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, and Meryl Streep.  (Oh, and Taylor Swift is in the film for no discernible reason.)  Skarsgard and Holmes are fine as the Receiver’s brain-washed parents, and Streep is fine, but she seems unnecessary.  For one thing, her character, the Chief Elder, barely exists in the book, yet here she is given the villain role.  It would have been more effective if the villain had remained the faceless “Sameness” that pervaded society.  Also, it isn’t a good sign that her character first appears as a hologram.  It made me feel like the rest of her performance, and character in general, was phone in.

The Giver, despite its flaws, ultimately stands apart from the rest of the pack of YA stories.  Its message is similar, but dealt with in a more somber fashion.  In fact, the film is only weak when it tries to be like the films it should be striving to be different than.  This movie was never going to out-gross or replace The Hunger Games, so it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers even tried.  Despite itself, The Giver is a movie worth seeing, and, more importantly, thinking about.

Random Thoughts

I'm just going to ramble a bit about differences and interpretations that bothered me a little bit.

The mopeds or whatever were silly.  So was the Asher/drone scene.  It just took the whole escape-with-a-baby thing (which is pretty silly already) about five steps too far.  I can't help but laugh at the image of Brenton Thwaites (or his CG approximation) plunging into rapids clutching a baby.

Meryl Streep flat out mentions war.  How does she know about war?  If she's so afraid of information getting out, why allow the Giver to live at all?  Just kill him...problem solved.

I get the sled theme and all, but that ridiculous sled ride on lunch trays (or whatever they were) looked like garbage.  

This movie would have just been so much better had they not felt the need to pep it up.  It's as if someone was on set saying, "This for teenagers!  Remember that!  Every ten minutes someone either needs to do something slightly sexual or violent or both!  Otherwise everyone will already fall asleep!  Don't give me that look!  I'm already letting you do the artsy-fartsy black and white!"  Obviously I'm joking a bit, but it felt that way every time some random moment like that happened.  I get that the book isn't action-packed, but people obviously read it without throwing it down because of the lack of action.  I mean, if there can be teenage movie about romance that don't have tacked on action sequences, why can't teenage movies be about society and humanity without tacked on action sequences?

The Giver receives a:

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