By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In a post-apocalyptic world of contented conformity in the indeterminate future, suffering has been erased through a system known as Sameness. There’s no sickness, no war, no prejudice.
Also no color, no music, no art. All memories of the past have been eradicated, as has individual freedom.
And as each child reaches adulthood, he or she is assigned a role for life in what is known as the Assignment Ceremony.
That’s the premise of The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s best-selling 1993 Young Adult novel, winner of the 1994 Newberry Medal, the film rights to which were purchased nearly two decades ago by Jeff Bridges, who originally wanted to direct his father, Lloyd, in the key role he now himself plays as it finally comes to the screen.
The Giver is essentially plowing the same fields and hunting the same game as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Pleasantville, but without the same clarity, urgency, or emotionality, and the lack of any point of emotional entry keeps the audience -– especially those new to the material –- at arm’s length.
It’s a coming-of-age drama that explores morality, diversity, and love in a society that may seem on the surface utopian but that is actually definitively dystopian, one in which freedom of choice and individual differences do not exist.
Jeff Bridges, also a producer, plays the title character, the gruff keeper of the controlled community’s memories, while Meryl Streep is the severe Chief Elder, dedicated to preserving the status quo and forever thanking her young followers “for their childhood.”
When the Chief Elder informs the 16-year-old protagonist, Jonas (changed from age 12 in the book), played by Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites, who is unique in that he can see color in an otherwise black-and-white world, that he’s been chosen to be the next Receiver of Memory (a historian of sorts and the official keeper of humanity’s recollections before the institution of Sameness), he realizes that he will be succeeding The Giver, who is to mentor and train him.
And although Jonas –- for whom this is not an option but an obligation and an inevitability — is beginning to uncover and discover the secret past and gain knowledge of the dark truths about the community, the uncertainty of his life-or-death future has him terrified.
Veteran Australian director Phillip Noyce (Newsfront, Dead Calm, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector, Salt) stays relatively faithful to the source book, but his film strains to yank the material off the page.
And in underlining so deliberately the theme of the importance of individuality and free thinking in the screenplay by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, he reveals what seems like simplistic or shallow philosophizing without compelling characters or arresting relationships —- or, at the very least, accessible themes that are far too familiar to audiences.
The acting is efficient but uninspired. Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes play Jonas’ parents — he nurturing but obedient, she icy and literal — while Israeli actress Odeya Rush is Jonas’ fetching love interest, and singer Taylor Swift stops by for a marquee-enhancing flashback cameo.
But even world-class actors like Streep and Bridges are defeated by their one-note roles.
So we’ll assign 2 stars out of 4 for the metaphorical futuristic tale, The Giver, a generic, sameness-celebrating drama that seems produced by the bland, uninteresting society it depicts.