In the universe of The Giver, everyone is injected with a shot each morning to ensure that no one experiences emotions. Everyone sees in only black and white. They have never heard music. They have never even heard of the concept of music. They have never experienced love. They have never kissed. Collectively, they also have no memory of a time before they existed. They don’t even understand death. People are simply “released.”
The citizenry lives bland, joyless existences with family units chosen for them, and when they turn 18 they are assigned one of a handful of occupations.
The only person allowed to have emotions is the Giver (Jeff Bridges), who stores all the memories of the world before their universe in his mind, which he passes along to his protege, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). Jonas struggles with these “memories” because he doesn’t understand why his world would reject things like joy, and happiness, and love. And then, of course, he is given memories of war, and starvation, and loss, and he flips the f**k out.
But the idea behind this dystopia — as enunciated by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) — is that love, and faith, and all of those other things, are not worth it if it also means loss, and war, and those things. So, this dystopia has simply done away with it all, until Jonas decides to do something. In this world, if someone travels scores and scores of miles outside of the city and leaves the “memory boundary,” then memory is returned to everyone.
You can see where this is headed, I’m sure.
The themes are heavy-handed, but not uninteresting to a teenager who thinks, say, that Katy Perry lyrics are profound (and I say this as a teenager who thought “Something to Believe In” by Poison was the most profound song ever). Given the target audience, and the fact that The Giver is based on yet another dystopian YA novel, I’m willing to forgive that cloying, hamfistedness of it all, though I will note that there are plenty of movies, like Dead Poets Society or Pump up the Volume, that express similar non-conformist themes to teenagers in more subtle, intelligent, and entertaining ways.
The bigger problem with The Giver is that — like Divergent — the concepts are nonsensical, the sci-fi is lazy, and the dystopian civilization is incredibly generic. It’s a very dull movie, and it’s not helped by the fact that most of the characters are essentially living zombies. I did, however, appreciate that Katie Holmes plays a mother who gives her freedom of thought away to what is essentially a religious cult. Likewise, the genetically perfect (Aryan-esque) Alexander Skarsgård is suitable to his small part as a man who “releases” babies. Taylor Swift — in a very small role — does not embarrass herself, either (not is she given much opportunity to do so). Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep could play their parts in their sleep, and for all I know, that’s exactly what they did here.
Ultimately, the point of The Giver is to demonstrate that war, and loss, and suffering are all worth the price of love, and discovery, and sleds and snow and babies crying, and in making that point, the film even manages to eke out a decent 30-second studio-manufactured epiphany montage in the film’s climax. It’s not worth the price of admission, however, because honestly, this free, four-minute and 30 second video of a goofy guy dancing illustrates the same point about our capacity for love, the largeness of the world, and our appetite for life far better than a nearly two-hour dystopian film.
That video never gets old, guys.