The Giver Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Odeya Rush. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Lois Lowry’s young adult science-fiction novel The Giver was published in 1993, many years before The Hunger Games, Divergent and their various imitators, but its movie adaptation is being released into a marketplace now glutted with YA franchises. Set in a totalitarian (but peaceful) future, The Giver stars blank-faced pretty boy Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, a teen with uncommon sensitivity, who is chosen to take up the mantle of his community’s Receiver of Memories. While everyone else lives in a homogenized, conformist, colorless (literally; the first third of the movie is in black and white) society, Jonas will be entrusted with all the knowledge and memories of the world that came before.
Of course, learning about the existence of love, music and Christmas from his predecessor, the man known as the Giver (Jeff Bridges), inspires Jonas to rebel against his society’s overlords, which is something they really should have foreseen. The message about the value of individuality and free will may come across subtly and gracefully in Lowry’s book (which has become a staple of middle-school reading lists), but here it’s delivered as bluntly and obviously as possible. Bridges brings a bit of melancholy to his performance as the avuncular but haunted Giver, but Meryl Streep is wasted as the community’s autocratic ruler. More crucially, Thwaites lacks any charisma or emotional expressiveness, making it hard to engage with Jonas’ journey from ignorance to enlightenment to action (not to mention his rote romance with a fellow teen played by Odeya Rush).
Journeyman director Phillip Noyce, who’s made everything from action blockbusters to social-realist dramas to campy B-movies, moves the story along smoothly enough (although the last act feels a little drawn out), but he can’t quite shake the sense of déjà vu for anyone familiar with other recent (and even not-so-recent) sci-fi dystopias. Noyce engages with the story’s central theme by varying the levels of color saturation (from dull black and white to full, vibrant color) to reflect the characters’ mental states, but nothing in Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide’s script is nearly that ingenious. What was once a pioneering story now looks like just another knock-off.