“The Giver” is the kind of movie that can inspire you and drive you crazy at the same time. It delivers a powerful message about the value of free will and the joys of living, yet at the same time it leaves enough open endings to undermine and distract from the resonance of its message.
It feels like three-quarters of an awesome movie.
The film is based on Lois Lowry’s celebrated 1993 novel of the same name. It is set in some undetermined future, decades after an event called The Ruin inspired humanity to wipe its memory of the past and live in a sanitized utopia perched high atop some kind of vast isolated mesa, with steep cliffs and a cloud-covered perimeter cutting civilization off from the outside world.
In this new society, every aspect of life is structured, planned and governed by a strict set of rules and a body of elders who oversee it. The focus of the story is on Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a gifted 18-year-old whose notable abilities allow him to bypass his peers’ traditional, assigned careers. While his best friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeye Rush) get assigned to be a drone pilot and an infant nurturer, respectively, Jonas is assigned as an understudy to The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the one member of society allowed to retain memories of the world that was.
As the designated Receiver of Memory, Jonas is to undergo a confidential training regimen that will prepare him to inherit The Giver’s position and council the elders on complicated policy matters. These lessons take place in a remote home on the literal edge of civilization within the culture’s last surviving library.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a story if everything went as planned. Early into his training, Jonas quickly discovers that memory unlocks a world of exquisite joys and pains, and he struggles to keep from sharing his new learning with his old friends (especially Fiona) and what he discovers is his family in name only. He also learns that the previous Receiver of Memory suffered a mysterious fate, and that there is tension between The Giver and the chief elder, played by Meryl Streep.
The events that follow underscore a primary message about free will and the futility of mankind’s best-intended efforts to create its own utopian existence, specifically when it comes to imposing it on others.
“The Giver” also walks a fine line between science fiction and fantasy. Far from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the future Earth of this film is stainless and advanced, its inhabitants surrounded by the best of modern science. Yet the transfer of memory between The Giver and Jonas seems almost telepathic, and later events in the film suggest a much more non-scientific set of powers are in play.
Thwaites and Bridges are equally appealing in their roles, and director Phillip Noyce’s visual style underscores the themes of the film in a captivating way. Yet the film’s 94-minute running time leaves an awful lot of unanswered questions. If the memories can be transferred by touch, why keep all those vast stacks of books around? If the memories are so bad, why take the risk of letting someone hold onto them at all? Is anyone really surprised that the people allowed to retain memories might start to undermine the utopian system? Who exactly is living out beyond the borders of this utopia? And most of all, what on earth is The Ruin, and how did it result in the world these people live in?
Without having read the source material, it’s hard to pin the blame for the ambiguity or the plot holes on the film or the book. But the bottom line is that if you focus on its message, “The Giver” has some very important things to say. You just might find yourself a little frustrated with the information you get (or rather, don’t get) along the way.
“The Giver” is rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/voilence.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.