It might seem hard to describe The Giver without revealing some of those plot points that touchy suspense fans call “spoilers.” But this brisk, deftly art-directed parable is basically unspoilable. Even viewers who know nothing of its source, Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel, will be able to anticipate every development.
That’s because Lowry’s vision of a serene but secretly corrupt future society offers little that wasn’t imagined decades earlier in 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Lowry just cooked such books down for a pre-teen audience that hasn’t read them.
After years of trying, producer and star Jeff Bridges finally got The Giver made because of the success of The Hunger Games and similar tales of noble teens in a world run by manipulative adults. So the first task was aging the novel’s protagonist (Jonas, played by Brenton Thwaites) from 12 to 16.
Jonas lives in a community, called “the community,” that’s any high schooler’s vision of Hell: It’s run by guidance counselors. Where in Divergent the kids were separated into different castes upon graduation, in The Giver they’re given specific assignments. None is more specific than Jonas’. He’s the new receiver, assigned to learn the real history of humanity from the bearded, avuncular title character (Bridges, clearly enjoying the sound of his own voice).
Among the many questions the movie barely attempts to answer is, why do the positions of giver and receiver exist? The elders, led by an often holographic Meryl Streep, don’t want anyone else to know about the bad old days of war, famine and hatred. So why not assign Jonas to flip burgers for the rest of his life, and send the Giver on a long walk off a short pier?
Because, of course, there is violence just beneath the community’s veneer of calm. That’s one of the alarming if unsurprising things Jonas learns once he starts receiving — and stops taking his daily dose of mood controller. As in the substantially more macho Equilibrium, ingestion of a Valium-like drug is required. This relaxant suppresses emotion and individuality, and even its users’ ability to distinguish color. So the first part of The Giver is in black and white, like Pleasantville.
If the movie hits ominous notes, they’ve all been heard many times before: There are no books or music in the futuristic planned community, human reproduction is controlled by the state, kissing is unknown and families are not genetically related. Jonas has merely been assigned to his father (Alexander Skarsgard) and mother (a drawn-faced Katie Holmes).
To make it less of a kiddie story, director Philip Noyce and scripters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide have added romance (Jonas has the unauthorized hots for a classmate played by Odeya Rush) and boosted the action. There are chase scenes — including one on a bike path that’s lighted even though people aren’t allowed to go out at night — and confrontations. Also modestly exciting are the fragmentary flashbacks to a former receiver, played by Taylor Swift. (She and the community broke up, and they are never ever getting back together.)
Ultimately, Jonas must make a choice, and leave his sterile home for the forbidden outback. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that he finds a refuge there. Or that this new abode offers the sort of picture-postcard coziness that could have been simulated by his former community’s devious elders.