Movie Review: 'The Giver' Exposes Dangers of a 'Perfect' Society

Thursday, 14 Aug 2014 11:26 PM

By Bill Hoffmann

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What would it be like to live in a "perfect'' society — one without war, poverty, crime, or racial tension?

In today's world, with the Middle East exploding, the suburbs of St. Louis in turmoil and terrorists around every corner, it’s a question well worth considering.

"The Giver,'' an unnerving science-fiction drama stylishly directed by Phillip Noyce which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, delivers the answer with no uncertainty: We're better off existing in a warts-and-all world than a manufactured utopia.

Based on the acclaimed 1993 young-adult novel by Lois Lowry, "The Giver,'' is a tasty sci-fi treat for late summer. Refreshingly, it relies less on CGI than most futuristic tales out today and makes fine use of exotic South African locations.

It's a decidedly bold project for conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz, who owns Anschutz Entertainment Group, a family-friendly media company led by Frank Smith, Micheal Flaherty, Francis Flaherty, and Ryan Jones.

Walden Media, owned by AEG, is familiar to moviegoers for "The Chronicles of Narnia" series, "Charlotte's Web,'' "Holes," and "Aliens of the Deep.'' But "The Giver" — made as a co-venture with The Weinstein Co. — has a distinctly more grown-up feel than past Walden projects, despite the lack of sex and foul language.

The movie begins in black-and-white as we're thrust into a seemingly ideal community where everybody is pleasant, even-tempered, happy, and wearing sensible clothing. The pristine streets are uniform and peppered with ultra-modern, pod-like housing. In other words, welcome to Blandsville.

We soon learn there's a price for perfection. Certain language is banned (the word "love'' is forbidden), everybody must take a daily doping to stay calm, and children are groomed to be complacent. Think "Nineteen Eighty Four,'' "The Children of the Damned,'' and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers'' rolled into one.

Orchestrating this perfect nightmare is "The Chief Elder,'' an emotionless, humorless woman played with icy perfection by Meryl Streep. She realizes that to survive, her world needs an old-fashioned decision maker, somebody with a full range of emotions and an encyclopedia knowledge of history.

She taps a broody teen named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), to be the new "Receiver,'' and assigns him to "The Giver,'' a gruff old geezer (Jeff Bridges) who lives in an old, book-filled house on the edge of a cliff.

But once Jonas gets a taste of reality — and a passionate kiss from a nubile admirer — the cat's out of the bag. He knows he can never go back to his old life, and must unravel the dreary society he lives in in order to save it.

That's not easy with a pair of unfeeling, by-the-book parents, portrayed with creepy finesse by Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård. But Jonas' mission becomes even more critical after a highly-disturbing scene involving Skarsgård and a newborn baby that will curl your hair, and which no doubt helped the movie earn a PG-13 rating.

This movie has been a pet project of Bridges' for years. He originally optioned the book in 1995 with the idea of having his father, Lloyd Bridges, play the title role. (Lloyd Bridges, a veteran of dozens of movies and TV shows, died in 1998).

"The Giver" gives us a "Lost Horizon" gone haywire, a dystopian world where humanity is no longer human and paradise turns out to be prison. It's a tense cautionary tale of which George Orwell and H.G Wells would highly approve.

"The Giver'' (The Weinstein Company/Walden Media) Director: Phillip Noyce. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Brenton Thwaites. Screenplay: Michael Mitnick, Robert Weide. Based on a book by Lois Lowry. Produced by Jeff Bridges and Neil Koenigsberg. Executive produced by Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Dylan Sellers, Ron Burkle, Alison Owen, Ralph Winter and Scooter Braun. Running time: 94 min. MPAA rating: PG-13, for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence.




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