Saturday, September 20, 2014

Will The Giver Work Better In Context? (It’s Still Wonderful On Its Own!)

The Good: (Mostly) Wonderful directing, Good acting, Great story, Interesting character arcs
The Bad: Some elements of coincidence that do not play out well on their own
The Basics: A generally strong narrative, well-executed, The Giver might be the great start to a worthy new science fiction film franchise!

I’ve been on vacation for the last week, which explains my absence from blogging. My wife and I have been on something of a second honeymoon and today, we took the day off and took in a couple of movies. We started with The Giver, which is somewhat ironic; it has been several weeks since it was theatrically released and there seems to be a sudden rush of new releases this weekend which seems to indicate the beginning of Oscar Pandering Season. With so many new choices to take in, that her first choice was going back to take in a film she had missed seemed a bit odd to me. I can’t complain, though; the movie was pretty wonderful and it was nothing like I thought it was going to be.

My wife was big into seeing The Giver because she read it back in middle school. Apparently, she told me all about it and I was not, honestly, paying attention when she did. Based on the brief advertising campaign I caught for The Giver over the summer, I honestly thought the film was something along the vein of Pay It Forward (reviewed here!). Fortunately, my wife has forgiven me for not quite paying attention to her and, essentially, going into The Giver blind.

And the film was well-worth seeing and it is an engaging start to what should be a series (there was a full quartet of the books). Come to think of it, I cannot recall a film based-upon-a-book series where the first film in the series left me eager for the next installment(s).

In a seemingly perfect community that is apparently high in the clouds, above a ruined Earth, all of the people live predictable, planned lives. At the age of nine, like Jonas’s younger sister Lilly, children are given bicycles to teach them more responsibility and give them greater autonomy. At age eighteen, young people are given their permanent jobs and Jonas is selected to be the new Receiver, a mysterious position that seems to be exempt from most of the society’s rules. Attending his training after ominous allusions to what happened with the last chosen Receiver, Jonas learns that his position is to be the repository of all knowledge that has been withheld from the community. After telepathically linking with the current keeper of the knowledge, The Giver, Jonas realizes just how much has been withheld from the community.

Starting to see the world around him in color and feeling deeper emotions than the fleet feelings the members of the community feel, Jonas finds it impossible to continue living within the bounds of the society. Jonas feels love for his lifelong friend, Fiona, and he stops taking the medicine that everyone in the community takes in order to regulate their emotions. As the Giver and Jonas work together, transferring more and more powerful emotions to Jonas during their sessions, they hatch a plan to save the life of an under-developed baby (Gabriel) and forever alter the society. As the authorities within the society hunt down Jonas, he and the Giver come to believe that there is a boundary outside the community where Jonas could pass and restore the held memories to the community.

The Giver is the first film in a long time that I have watched and not had a powerful opinion on right afterward (one way or the other). I knew the moment the movie was done that I had enjoyed it, but it did not truly excite me. I felt the movie more than it left me in a position to analyze it. The film was set up with a number of seemingly predictable premises: a repressed society in which one member holds the ability to transform the whole system, lifelong friends who initially do not want anything to change (put into a situation where change is inherent), and an ordered society where people are kept in check with firm rules and medication (does that ever work?!). Naturally, The Giver quickly starts to deconstruct the myths of the perfect society – from the conceptual (emotions regulated by drugs cannot keep people from having opinions and feelings) to the geographical (the ground is actually ridiculously close to the edge of the cliff that is the raised community) – but it goes through the process of unfolding the resistance that is forming within Jonas well.

Jonas is an interesting protagonist and his story is well-conceived. He is anxious about the career he might be assigned (the reason for that is not explained well in the film) and he has good reason to be anxious. While all of his peers are given jobs and a purpose (he and his friend Asher easily call that Fiona will be placed in the Nurturing Center), he is held back. Until the Chief Elder gives him his job as Receiver, Jonas is a nervous young man alone. While Jonas’s mind is blown by the memories imparted to him by the Giver, his journey is more subtly illustrated as a young man going from insecure to confident.

Director Phillip Noyce gets so much right with The Giver that it is hard to find a lot to gripe about. The film begins in black and white and long before the literal interpretation of this is revealed, the metaphorical presentation of the sterile world of the community is masterfully presented. As Jonas experiences more emotions, his world is infused with color and that plays out decently. In fact, one of the few decent gripes I could come up with the film was how the costumes appeared to change after Jonas starts seeing the world in color. In other words, the planned community where everyone wears white works as a symbol of perfect order; what does not work is that when Jonas starts seeing in color, Fiona is seen actually wearing a light blue outfit and suddenly the children playing are wearing brown and orange outfits!

Beyond that, the only real flaw I could find with The Giver was with the performance of Alexander Skarsgard. I like Alexander Skarsgard and his role in The Giver is very different from his part on True Blood (though the first time his character of Father was placed right next to a baby, I involuntarily thought, “Don’t give that to him, he’ll exsanguinate it!”). Unfortunately, his performance in The Giver opens up way too much ambiguity in both the society and the people within it. Skarsgard delivers his lines with more emotion than his character is supposed to have. While Father circumvents some of the minor rules without consequence (apparently learning Gabriel’s name involved hacking into forbidden files), his lack of bewilderment when Jonas uses the word “love” makes it seem like he knows what the emotion is. In fact, throughout the film I kept waiting for him to reveal to Jonas a big secret about his own emotional range (based on Skarsgard’s performance).

The rest of the cast is wonderful and fills out the “perfect” world beautifully. Brenton Thwaites is able to evolve Jonas well from stiff but nervous to emotional and rebellious well. Jeff Bridges is virtually unrecognizable as The Giver. My wife and I watched The Big Lebowski (reviewed here!) right before we left for our vacation and Bridges looks and acts nothing like The Dude in The Giver! Still, he is entirely credible as a disenchanted keeper of all knowledge in the film. Katie Holmes is wonderfully dispassionate as Jonas’s Mother and Odeya Rush is able to move from repressed to emotional well as Fiona.

The Giver does not explain everything it needs to in order to be absolutely satisfying, but the few big questions it leaves dangling are enough to want to return to this cinematic world. The Giver is smart and establishes a firm setting before beginning the process of disassembling it and, in that regard, it does all it should.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
10,000 Days
Hit By Lightning
Listen Up Philip
The Best Of Me
The Judge
Dracula Untold
The Equalizer
The Zero Theorem
The Maze Runner
This Is Where I Leave You


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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