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The Giver ••

The_Giver_posterStarring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenplay: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide
Drama/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: August 15, 2014

Jonah: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Chief Elder: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)


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Scott, it’s time for us to give our review of The Giver.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Unfortunately, The Giver was a taker of two hours of my time. Let’s recap.

In The Giver we’re introduced to young Jonah (Brenton Thwaites) on the eve of his “Ceremony of Growth” where he and all the other 18-year-olds will be assigned their jobs. One by one Jonah’s peers receive jobs like caregiver or fighter pilot, but Jonah is left to the last. He is told he is going to be the Receiver. This is a role selected once a generation. As the Receiver he will be given all the knowledge of previous generations. In Jonah’s “community” they have eliminated all emotion and memory of the past – even the idea of color. It is the job of the Receiver to advise the elders based on the inherited knowledge. This knowledge is passed on to Jonah by a man known only as the Giver (Jeff Bridges).

Jonah begins to receive some of the community’s early memories from the Giver, and these images are difficult and sometimes painful to deal with. One of the emotions that he experiences for the first time is the feeling of love. Eager to share this new emotion, Jonah begins to warm up to one of the girls in the community whose name is Fiona (Odeya Rush). Illegally, he takes her on a mock sled ride and then encourages her to skip taking her daily injection designed to deny her emotional experience. Eventually, Jonah and the Giver decide that it is best for the community to break through the barrier of “Elsewhere” to restore the entire community’s memories.

The Giver is YA dystopian fiction. And when I say “YA” I don’t mean “Young Adult,” I mean “Yet Another.” It starts out as so many of today’s young adult stories do – a young person in a dreary future where they are being categorized and put into a social class that is selected for them by adults. We saw it in Harry Potter (the sorting hat), The Hunger Games (districts 1-12), and in this year’s Divergent (which has an opening scene almost identical to The Giver’s). The Giver may actually lay claim to this pattern as it is based on a book that is 20 years old. But it is quite the YA trope now.

The story starts out in black and white. As Jonah starts to gain an awareness of how things truly are, the color starts to come into focus – both in his mind and on-screen. It’s a nice effect, but we’ve seen it before in movies like Pleasantville.

The main goal for Jonah is to escape from the community and cross the barrier of Elsewhere which will somehow magically restore everyone’s memories. This device is really hard to swallow as there are no explanations for how this happens. The Giver merely says it is so and it becomes part of the physics of that universe. I found it hard to accept and it made the ending seem contrived.

Greg, what a shame that this movie arrives on the heels of so many other films with a similar premise, theme, and moral message. Even if The Giver is based on a book that preceded all the other films, it still comes across as derivative. To make matters worse, this film does an inferior job of addressing those same themes compared to what we’ve seen over and over again in works such Hunger Games, Divergent, and others. When you and I saw the opening selection ceremony, we looked at each other in the theater and said, ‘Not again!’ at the exact same time. How unfortunate. Perhaps YA stands for ‘Yawn Again.’

The Giver does feature a decent hero’s journey. I’m trying not to hold it against poor Jonah that we’ve seen his story many times in the past couple of years in other films. After all, it’s a classic tale of a young person who has a limited view of the universe but then grows in his understanding to the point of realizing that his universe must be overthrown in order for justice, truth, beauty, and the American way to prevail. The Giver himself is the obvious mentor to Jonah, and Fiona is his obvious love interest. Jonah’s hero journey is so common and predictable that the key to its success is for the filmmakers to portray it in an uncommon and/or exemplary way. Alas, the filmmakers did not succeed in achieving those goals.

I got a lot of confused messages from this story. At one point we learn that babies who are not fully conformant (by way of weight, intelligence, or social development) are put to death by unthinking doctors. So I thought this was some sort of hidden message about the evils of abortion. But then, the villain character (the lead elder played by Meryl Streep) makes a speech about how people cannot be given the right to choose, because they make bad choices. Which is an argument against choice. So I was very lost as to what the point of this film was. I give The Giver just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Jonah is a common hero and plods along the hero’s journey with no surprises. The characters in the story are all going through the paces without thinking about what they are doing. Jonah sees this and decides to make a change. He wants to give people back their autonomy. It’s a noble mission. I give Jonah 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villain here was the lead elder who wanted to maintain the status quo. She liked the world without color, variety, or the messiness of love, hate, and above all, choice. She wasn’t played as an evil overlord, but more as a obstructionist – motivated by the fear of returning to things that had lead the world astray. It wasn’t a profound role and I wasn’t inspired one way or the other. I give the elder just 2 Villains out of 5.

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The Giver breaks no new ground in its presentation of a future world in which people have been robbed of their emotions and their freedom of choice. We understand that such a sterile and totalitarian universe will prevent war and we also get the fact that sometimes peace comes at too high a price. Star Trek dealt with these themes in the 1960s and other more modern treatments are scattered throughout the sci-fi canon. We do get a very nice performance from Jeff Bridges, but as in the case with last year’s RIPD, Bridges is a great actor trapped inside a mediocre movie. I award The Giver a mere 2 Reels out of 5.

As I noted above, the hero’s journey is hardly new and can only succeed by adding some new element or twist, or by being exceptionally noteworthy. Jonah is a capable hero and shows great growth as a character, but we’ve been down this road too many times to be subjected to a routine treatment of his type of journey. I can only give poor Jonah a mere 2 Heroes out of 5.

The great shock of The Giver is the appearance of Meryl Streep, who is terribly underutilized as the Cruella DeGiver character here. Why Streep took on this part is a complete mystery to me. Her vast talents are as well-hidden as the clouded land of “Elsewhere” in the movie. There is little to learn about villainy from her evil character, and her role exists only for the purpose of being a vapid obstacle for Jonah and the Giver to conquer. Cruella gets a mere 2 Villains out of 5.

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