A film review by Craig J. Koban December 14, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 94 mins.


Jeff Bridges as The Giver  /  Meryl Streep as Chief Elder  /  Brenton Thwaites as Jonas  /  Alexander Skarsgård as Jonas's father  /  Katie Holmes as Jonas' mother  /  Odeya Rush as Fiona  /  Cameron Monaghan as Asher  /  Taylor Swift as Rosemary

Directed by Phillip Noyce  /  Written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide  /  Based on the book by Lois Lowry

As a cautionary piece of futuristic sci-fi, THE GIVER has so much going for it that it’s a real shame when far too many of its other elements fall flat.  

Based on the Newbery Medal winning 1994 young adult book of the same name by Lois Lowry, the film tells an Orwellian tale of a society of tomorrow that has creepily eradicated emotion and memories to create a utopian civilization that, deep beneath its façade, subverts individuality and frankly what it means to be human.  THE GIVER was a popular book (it sold more than $10 million copies and producer/star Jeff Bridges has been trying to make a feature film version for decades) and it’s easy to see how its themes of questioning moral authority and the societal status quo appealed to young readers.  Alas, the resulting film, despite being a noble minded endeavor, feels like a springboard to weighty and deeply contemplative ideas that never probes and plays off of those ideas as much as its should have.  

Under the watchful and vigilant eye of director Phillip Noyce, THE GIVER is at is most compelling during its opening sections, during which time the film does a solid job of subtle world building.  After an unspecified global cataclysm in the distant future, the world has been reduced down to a tightly knit and tightly regulated “community” where all forms of emotion have been subjugated and, more importantly, all memories of the past have been whipped clean in its denizens.  This new community has essentially become one of omnipresent sameness: everything from pain, suffering, and war is a thing of the past and even language itself is “precisely” regulated as to not evoke an emotional response.  People self-medicate daily to keep themselves from remembering or feeling anything.  Hell, this place is so antiseptic that even color doesn’t exist (Noyce films much of the film in sterile black and white, a bold choice that helps accentuate a society void of personality or sentiment). 



Every single solitary day-to-day activity by any citizen is monitored by Big Brother-esque computers right from birth.  Families themselves are artificially constructed, which has further removed any semblance of free will and choice.  From this point we are introduced to the main protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a teenager that, along with his friends Fiona (Odeya Rish) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), are about to take a right of passage towards adulthood.  In a lavish ceremony ruled over by the community’s Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), Jonas and his companions are assigned “roles” as to what they will do with the rest of their lives.  To his astonishment, Jonas is selected to be “The Receiver,” a position of tremendous importance as he will become a new conduit of the collective memories of the old world.  In order to become “The Receiver” he will have to have all of these memories transferred, so to speak, by “The Giver” (Jeff Bridges). 

Some of the film’s best sequences involve the training montages between The Giver and Jonas, which involves The Giver telekinetically transferring his memories to Jonas by making physical contact with him.  Initially, Jonas has images that are essentially foreign to him, thus making his journey towards become The Receiver a bit shaky at first.  Yet, the more memories that are transferred to Jonas the more he becomes emotionally enlightened with the world of the community around him.  As Jonas discovers the pleasures – and horrors – of the past, the once monochromatic world of the community begins to show color (kind of akin to what Gary Ross did to similar effect in PLEASANTVILLE) and Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery have fun in exploring their B&W world exploding with vibrant hues.  Unfortunately, the more Jonas learns of the past the more he begins to doubt the wisdom of the Chief Elder, which makes him a threat to civilization in her eyes. 

All of this is pretty fantastic stuff, even though much of THE GIVER feels like it's casually and lazily borrowing from past sci-fi films like LOGAN'S RUN, THX-1138, EQUILIBRIUM, and THE ISLAND for good measure.  The retro-futuristic take on the community looks like a warped 1950’s suburbia devoid of feeling and the manner with which its people speak the same…move the same…and endlessly and formally apologize for every triviality is positively unnerving at times.  Noyce, with a limited budget, does wonders with conjuring up this strange universe where freedom and choice are abstract entities.  He also garners a thankless performance by Jeff Bridges as the titular character, who seems perpetually haunted by the daunting responsibility of being the harbinger of everything that has been deemed outlawed in community life.  He’s a fascinating character in the sense that he’s essentially cut off from everyone else around him despite being a figure of immense significance.  Bridges looks suitable withered, tired, and melancholic in the role. 

Bridges is flanked by other good supporting performances, like Katie Holmes and Alexander Sarsgaard, who play Jonas’ parents that have perhaps drank too much of the community’s Kool-Aid for their own good.  Young Brenton Thwaites doesn’t have much range as an actor, but he makes up for it with raw earnestness.  Meryl Streep’s work here is kind of puzzling in the sense that she spends much of her screen time – sporting a stoic pout and a crazy wig – in a holographic form, which consequently does not allow for her to really flex her thespian muscles and dig deep into what could have been an intriguing antagonist.  It ultimately seems like a relative waste of an A-list talent like her to play such a marginalized and thinly written character. 

THE GIVER really seems to unravel as it approaches its third act, during which time Jonas – and a community baby that he has bonded with – try to escape the Chief Elder and the community and into the world beyond it.  These final sections of the film are sort of haphazardly constructed on some wobbly action/chase sequences (where that infant is put constantly through the physical ringer to the point where his continued survival becomes laughable).  Then there’s the manner that THE GIVER races towards its narrative finish, which doesn’t so much conclude the film by answering many of its questions as it does just abruptly end it and elicit more head-scratching puzzlement from audience members.  I have no problem with enigmatic and ambiguous endings, but THE GIVER becomes almost unbearably opaque in its finale.  

There’s many questions that the film never explicitly or satisfactorily answers, like, for example, if the world of the community is built on the soullessness and complacency of its citizens not remembering the past, then why have figure like The Giver that’s a repository of memories in the first place?  Or, for that matter, why impart these memories to a young lad that could use them to overturn the establishment?  Again, it’s not that THE GIVER doesn’t have profound themes or significant things to say about them.  The problem with the film is in overall execution.  In the end, there simply has been a litany of far better past sci-fi films that have explored similar ideas to better effect.  Much like the film's community dwellers themselves, THE GIVER is kind of emotionally and intellectually hollow and lacks its own voice. 

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