Aside from a few standout moments and the occasional arresting image, Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s dystopian young-adult novel “The Giver” is a largely dreadful film. The ambiguity and creeping dread that made the book so intriguing for millions of adolescent readers is largely absent from the film, replaced by a half-hearted teen romance subplot that vainly sought to replicate the emotional suffusion that made the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” film series so popular. Without that, or any, subtext ‘The Giver” is a muddily shot, Baby’s First Dystopia slog that won’t even serve as a useful cheat for lazy middle school students because of its many divergences from Lowry’s text.
One of the film’s few bright spots is Jeff Bridges portrayal of the title character, a hermit cursed to bear the weight of a utopia’s societal memory until he can shift his burden onto an unsuspecting young person. Bridges is the only actor in the film to embody the novel’s thorny ambivalence; he’s idealistic enough to agitate for change within his emotionless perfect society, but wise enough to understand that civilization evolved the way it did for a very good reason. His performance is an oasis of sadness and intelligence in a desert of cold utility.
Everyone else in the film acts like the only direction they received was a single Post-it note with archetype written on it such as Hero (Brenton Thwaites), Love Interest (Odeya Rush), Mother (Katie Holmes), Father (Alexander Skarsgård), Semi-traitorous Best Friend (Cameron Monaghan) and Little Sister (Emma Tremblay). Meryl Streep tries her best to make The Human Face of Fascism work and she almost does, like when she speaks the film’s only memorable line of dialogue (“People stood on each other’s necks, just for the view.”), but even the best performer can only do so much with a character that exists only as a plot device.
In addition to the film’s rote acting and exposition laden dialogue, “The Giver” is surprisingly ugly. While the idea of conveying a society free of feeling in black and white with bits of color dribbling in as the protagonist enters into a world of emotion is a compelling one, it was poorly executed here. The early sections of the film, actually presented in a murky grayscale with few defined blacks or whites, are underexposed in places and don’t evidence a production design concerned with maximizing the format’s contrasts. “The Giver” also features a number of distracting inserts, intended to be flashes of ancestral memory, shot on a variety of cameras including what appear to be a Go Pro and a late-model iPhone, shatters the film’s visual consistency in a way that Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery might not have intended.
Even the film’s action thriller finale, an invention of screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, falls flat because of its sheer improbability. Director Phillip Noyce, who worked the perennially laid back Harrison Ford into a memorable frenzy in their two Tom Clancy adaptations, was unable to get Brenton Thwaites to react to surviving an impossible motorcycle jump, a plunge into a raging waterfall and a trek through a punishing, inhospitable climate with any kind of emotional engagement, and this was well after his character was supposed to have discovered the full range of human emotions. There’s no tension to “The Giver,” which is shocking when considering that it was directed by the same man who made the sublimely taut “Dead Calm” in 1989.
Given the novel’s brevity and didacticism, it would have been hard for any film version of “The Giver” to succeed. Perhaps, years after the YA adaptation fad has gone away, a filmmaker with a strong aesthetic sensibility and a profound respect for the craft of acting will mount a new adaptation of Lois Lowry’s novel that will convey the book’s insights into the painful and complex journey of coming to understand the adult world. Such an adaptation might act as a crucial intellectual stepping stone that would cause young people to question the contradictions of society for the first time. It might mean something. This film, with its relentless dreariness and picture book simplicity, certainly doesn’t.