He Was Divergent First: "The Giver" more thematically loaded than some repackaging

The Giver (2014)
97 min., rated PG-13.

With "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent," one cannot be blamed to wonder if every utopian/dystopian sci-fi yarn geared to the YA set is run through a "Mad Libs" exercise. But before either of those trilogies saw a publisher, Lois Lowry's 1993 Newbery Medal-winning book "The Giver" beat them to the punch in tackling similarly provocative themes. This fine big-screen rendering might recall too many memories derivative of its like-minded brethren since it's coming a couple decades after the source material, but once the story takes shape and everything balances out, it's an absorbing, visually arresting stand-alone film. Director Phillip Noyce (2010's "Salt"), screenwriter Michael Mitnick, and a reliable ensemble believe the story they are telling and tell it with welcome degrees of warmth and individuality, which is admirable for a film set in a Stepfordized world devoid of both. In the end, "The Giver" might not be as dramatically profound as it wants to be, but it certainly pulls off a tricky feat in portraying a slick, clinical world without the film itself coming off too slick or clinical.

After "The Ruin," if you will, a majestic new utopian society has been established where war, illness, pain, strife, color, religion, race, emotion, and memories have all been eliminated. The well-secured community lives by a system called Sameness, so there's equality. No one lies, but no one loves. Everyone takes their morning injections to ensure no one feels much and can go on about their day, no questions asked. Every year, the eldery is sent to a place called Elsewhere, while 17-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) prepare for their transition from childhood to adulthood. They, along with all of their peers, attend the Assignment Ceremony to be assigned their new life positions. "Thank you for your childhood," delivers the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) in hologram form. Everyone is selected a place, while Jonas is singled out for possessing all four attributes Intelligence, Integrity, Courage and The Capacity to See Beyond. He has already been chosen as the community's next "Receiver of Memory," following "The Giver" (Jeff Bridges), a wizened man who lives alone in his house on a cliff. Once Jonas begins attending training at the old man's home, he experiences dreams of joy and love—and war—that he has never felt or seen before because it has been forbidden. Jonas will no longer submit to this rigidly controlled dystopia. No, he won't.

Exposition-heavy from the start, "The Giver" has a lot of groundwork to lay in how the society works. Instead of letting the details trickle progressively, director Noyce and screenwriter Mitnick hit the ground running, racing so quickly through world-building and exposition by both showing with imagery and flashing key words and telling with Brenton Thwaites' voice-over narration. It's a little overwhelming for the senses sans being insulting, but the film slows its roll and soon catches its breath. What ultimately sets "The Giver" out from the trendy crowd is how it provokes actual thought. Does sucking the joy, love, and pain out of life actually make it any safer? Where should the line between safety and freedom to experience be drawn? It's also quite engaging on an aesthetic level, with unblemished technical specs across the board. The film is crisp and handsomely shot before and after it makes its B&W-to-color shift á la "The Wizard of Oz" and "Pleasantville" (the latter film also sharing similiar themes of revolting against conformity). Director Noyce keeps everything tight and brisk at 97 minutes and makes enough right directorial decisions, except for there being maybe too much slow-motion during Jonas' memory flashbacks.

The actors, it should be noted, carry on a stoic speech rhythm that's intentional for the world of the film, and most of the actors make it work. As Jonas, emerging actor Brenton Thwaites does a capable job of carrying the weight of the film with tenacity and vulnerability. Though the character was only 12 in the book, it makes more sense that Thwaites plays a 17-year-old trying to shake up the status quo. Jeff Bridges (who was originally attached to direct this with his father Lloyd as the lead) is ideally cast as The Giver, a man whose sole purpose in the society is to keep all of humanity's recollections to himself and live a lonely existence. Meryl Streep is effective, bringing prestige, poise and a credibly stony coolness as the order-bringing, pro-conformity Chief Elder, even if she's only able to show hints of shadings with a one-note role in return. Thankfully, she doesn't take the part to hissable villain status, but less care has been brought to actualizing just what makes the Chief Elder tick or how she came into command. A cleverly cast Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård are allowed little breathing room from being shackled by the script, but they both serve their purpose as Jonas' brainwashed, unfeeling Mother and Father who disapprove when their son does not comply with the Elders. Odeya Rush has a lovely presence and conveys inner conflict well as Fiona, while Taylor Swift might be too recognizable in a brief but key role, although she's not on screen long enough for it to become too much of a distracting marketing coup. 

Aside from a few stilted, overripe (intentionally or not) line readings sneaking through, "The Giver" imagines its world creepily well from the page to the screen. Whenever a character verbally forbids the society's rules, someone will bark back with, "Precision of language!" Many will apologize, too. At the Assignment Ceremony, members of the congregation clap on their laps in unison. They have all been conditioned a certain way, so none of them know any different. Topics like euthanasia are treated with maturity and a chilling malevolence. Also, for once, the resolution feels more interpretative than a "to-be-continued" cliffhanger or book-mark placer. As comparisons can be made to "Logan's Run," "The Island," and nearly everything involving alternate realities with sinister underbellies and special teenagers (there is even an allusion to "Citizen Kane" with the memory of a sled), "The Giver" always finds a timelessness reflective of our own society and humanity's complexity. The whole package makes up for its familiarity and minor nitpicks with an overall professionalism to keep it from being a rehash or an also-ran in the alleged YA column. No need to apologize for this one.