With Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, and Katie Holmes; Written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide; Directed by
Phillip Noyce; Rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence. 94 minutes.
“The book was better than the movie,” is usually a statement made not as a matter of fact, but as shorthand to say, “I have the mental focus, the copious leisure time, and the kind of cultured upbringing required to actually read a book, you illiterate, populist plebian.” Making the comparison is not only passive-aggressively dickish–and often spoken with the same teeth-gnashed, barely-contained, Thurston Howell III disdain as the dig “I don’t even own a television”–but also misses the point. Yes, Plato, men and women sure are different, a dog is not a cat, and a book is not a movie. And congratulations–you’re an insufferable baggadouchio and a master of the obvious. Now, in the spirit of the book, take off your shirt, lie face-down on the bed, and prepare to be on the receiving end of an unpleasant rub.
Predictably, many will make the same ol’ snooty-snotty Buch-über-Film claim of THE GIVER, the long-brewing adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1993 dystopian YA novel. “The Giver” tells the story of young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites of “Maleficent”), the oldest child in a future-y planned community (that looks very much like Walt Disney’s original vision for EPCOT). Here, life is perfect, because it is engineered that way, from the precision of the language, to the job you will train for starting at age 12, to the person you will marry. But Jonas is very different and special, and his very different specialness catches the attention of the Elders (the Chief of which is played by a surprisingly one-note Meryl Streep). The Elders inform Jonas that his path is that of “The Receiver,” the esteemed keeper of all the knowledge of the very, very bad world that came before. This reality is kept from the citizenry, which is kept in docile darkness with a daily morning dose of what’s probably a cocktail of Zoloft, lithium, and Flintstones chewable salt peter (kind of like a hypodermic Philip Glass record). His secretive, not-at-all-creepy man-boy training with “The Giver” (producer Jeff Bridges) begins, and he takes it upon himself that the world should know all the joys and horrors that existed in it before it turned so very, very bad.
However, ‘baggery-be-damned, “the book was better than the movie” is a hard claim to support here, as neither the book nor the movie is particularly well-written. Rather, they are both spartan to the point of being vague, and in both cases we never recover from the awkwardness of the very structured and precise language (also: why Bridges talks like Carl from “Sling Blade” is never explained). Neither the book nor the movie is refreshing, either, instead smacking of a forgettable, late-series “Twilight Zone” episode, in much the same way that M. Night Shyamalamadingdong’s derivative “The Village” did. The book is significant, though, as it was the modern dystopian novel that primed the pump for the likes of “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and [whatever the kids are totes-magotes into this school year]. This may or may not be a crime against humanity, depending on how difficult it is to get your child to read a book without the aid of a quarantine, histrionic ransoming of handheld devices, or an EMP that mercifully takes out the power grid.
The gimmick in which a character sees only in black-and-white until he or she finds enlightenment was done defter in 1998’s “Pleasantville.” That movie’s director, Gary Ross, directed the first “Hunger Games” movie and created with it an immersive post-apocalyptic world. Here, the usually stalwart mercenary Phillip Noyce (TV’s “Revenge” and a laundry list of fair-to-middling movies you’ve probably half-enjoyed on cable TV over the years) makes the right stops through Lowry’s book, but in a very mechanical, book report-y kind of way. And for every dystopian cliché that adapters Robert B. Weide (“Woody Allen: A Documentary”) and first-timer Michael Mitnick avoid, like milking a romantic off-roading between Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush of “The Odd Life Of Timothy Green”), they are saddled with servicing two of Lowry’s clunkers. There’s the one in which Jonas must single-handedly free the world from its ignorance, and the one that has the entire society hidden away and not allowed to have knowledge of its very, very bad past. If romantic trope fetishist Nicholas Sparks wrote sci-fi, this would be his “Logan’s Run.”
It is the illustration of this very, very bad past during which the movie’s jagged seams become evident. When the Giver is imparting visions of the world before to Jonas via a handshake/psychic link (which was wisely changed from the slightly-nambla-riffic, half-naked back-rubbing in the book), they actually use GODDAMN YOUTUBE CLIPS. Nice production value, guys! Did you shoot the rest of the film on iPhones? Text-message script revisions back-and-forth? It is this kind of laziness that sums up the long journey of a movie that actually had the chance to rise above its unspectacular upbringing, but instead plays it safe and lives out its destiny as a cable TV staple that you kinda watch because you kinda remember it from middle school. It makes you wish that with all the apologizing that goes on between the characters in the movie that Bridges would show up in a post-credits stinger scene and say sorry for not giving us enough movie for our $11.00.•••
Robert Newton is Editor of North Shore Movies Weekly, and also the founder of the wicked quaint, living-room-style Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester.