By the time the sounds of the Von Trapp children warbling Silent Night drift through The Giver, you may find yourself wondering what fresh movie hell this is. In truth, the enervating hash of dystopian dread, vague religiosity and commercial advertising-style uplift is nothing if not stale. Adapted from Lois Lowry?s book for young readers, the story involves an isolated society that, with its cubistic dwellings, mindless smiles, monochromatic environs and nebulous communitarianism, seem modeled on a Scandinavian country or an old Mentos commercial.
The black-and-white world of the setting also suggests that you?re back in Kansas, as do the flickering rainbow colors that can be seen only by Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). Jonas lives with his ?family unit? (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes play his folks) in a culture as quiet, cold and inert as a crypt. Along with his friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), Jonas is about to become a worker bee. Once grown, each citizen is assigned to a specific job, explains the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep, who seems to have borrowed her severe gray ?do from Holly Hunter in Top of the Lake). Some are designated nurturers; others become pilots, gardeners and so on.
Jonas becomes the Receiver of Memory, which means that he gets to hang out with the only jumpy cat in this mausoleum, the Giver, an older dude played by Jeff Bridges with a muffled voice and a grizzled beard. The inhabitants of this world, like members of some crazy cult, decided long ago to banish memories along with bright colors, flattering clothing and emotions. Well, more or less: They also decided that one resident would always be the society?s custodian of collective memories and would, in time, pass this storehouse of remembrances on to the next Receiver. That?s how and why Jonas ends up in a house filled with books and perched at this world?s outer limits.
What follows is the usual hero?s journey mixed in with sloppy montage sequences that are meant to represent the memories the Giver is passing to Jonas but mostly evoke one of those tear-jerking commercials that sell their wares with gurgling babies and squirming puppies. The director Phillip Noyce ? working with a lamentable script credited to Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, and saddled with cheap digital effects and sets that needed more money or imagination or both ? can?t do much here, but doesn?t seem to be trying hard, either. About the only other thing worth mentioning is that this is yet another cinematic dystopia, in the wake of Elysium and Divergent, with a villainous female leader. That old Sonic Youth line about ?fear of a female planet? is in no danger of becoming irrelevant.
The Giver, the first book in the Giver Quartet, was published in 1993 and almost immediately eyed by Mr. Bridges as a screen property. In the decades since, publishers and filmmakers have continued to exploit the seemingly interminable craze for young-adult bummers with varying success. Ms. Lowry?s The Giver preceded both the Hunger Games and Divergent book series, to name two popular feel-bad sagas. Yet because both The Hunger Games and Divergent hit the screen first, the movie version of The Giver ? scene by formulaic scene, narrative clich? by clich? ? can?t help but come off as a poor copy of those earlier pictures.
In the end, it taketh ? your time, patience and faith in newly imagined dystopias ? more than it giveth.
The Giver is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Infanticide and child endangerment.