The story is that years ago Jeff Bridges bought the option to make a film of the popular adolescents’ book “The Giver.” His idea was that his father, Lloyd “Sea Hunt” Bridges would play the title part.
The actual movie wasn’t made until last year, and with Jeff in the part intended for his now deceased father. The film also stars Meryl Streep as a creepy sort of Big Brother, Katie Holmes, and pop music’s Taylor Swift.
But this distopian tale is, as is always the case with kids’ books, mostly about its kids. Brenton Thwaits, Odeya Rush, and Cameron Monaghan play Jonas, Fiona, and Asher, three 18-year-olds who have grown up together in one corner of a climate-controlled “community” plateau run by the ultimate Nanny State.
Every day every citizen takes an injection which eliminates their emotions. They are all brought up in adoptive families, are constantly watched, know nothing of history, have their professions chosen for them by the elders, never experience love, and never lie.
Well, there is one guy allowed to lie. He’s the Receiver of Memory and he lives out on the edge of the plateau in a house crammed full of books and old memories. At a sort of graduation ceremony, Jonas (Thwaits) is named the Receiver’s apprentice. He will get the gift of knowledge of the past from the Receiver (Bridges, who is just as much fun to watch as always).
The Giver and Jonas clasp their wrists together for the transmission of ordinary human experiences from before the state’s domination of life. In explaining the dangers and corresponding joys of free will, the teacher tells Jonas what the daily injections do. The student then begins letting the automated system inject a red apple instead of his arm, and soon he begins seeing things in color, which is to say he begins feeling things.
This means that some of the images he is shown—jungle warfare, for example, Vietnam-like—are particularly painful to him. The Vietnam War examples seem to have been selected to off-set potential left wing distrust of the message of the story, a message which is politically incorrect. What the movie screams is that we need to allow ourselves to be offended, sick, and endangered, because otherwise there can be no joy in life.
But there is something that will rouse political censors even more against the film, if they have the wit to see it, and that is that the movie is heavy with religious symbols. That apple that Jonas and later Fiona use to accept their daily injections is out of Genesis. There’s going to be ritual (funerals are celebrated in plateau land, though the celebrants don’t know the central figure is dead, offed by the state).
There is a baby who is the hope of the future, as we are specifically told. Jonas takes him when he fleas from the elders (senior among whom is Streep in a weird wig—she frequently appears in peoples’ homes, unannounced, in holographic form). Jonas and the infant are given a total immersion baptism by drone pilot Asher (Monaghan, whose face is perfect for this part), and then its on to a thrill ride on Rosebud.
The Giver has told Jonas that he can overcome the state’s system of memory and emotion repression by physically crossing a certain boundary. This sets up a ticking clock ending, with the film swinging back and forth between the impending execution of Fiona and Jonas’s struggles with weather and terrain on his way to a crossing point.
This suspense stuff is right in the wheel-house of director Philip Noyce, an Aussie whose reputation was made with a 1989 movie called “Dead Calm” and who has been responsible for “Patriot Games,” “The Bone Collector,” and “Salt.” But to get to the fun in “The Giver,” viewers have to get past a slow first hour.
It is slow mostly because it is busy explaining society’s awful limitations. Maybe the younger viewers for whom the book was intended need this sort of explanation. Unfortunately, most of us with more real life experience already know what niceness controls threaten. Luckily the story’s last reel can give us all hope.