'The Giver' (PG-13)

 

Lois Lowry's famed sci-fi novel comes to the screen after 20 years, with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.

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By Mick LaSalle, The San Francisco Chronicle

In the post-Apocalypse, order is all-important. We know this, not only because that makes intuitive sense, but because, just in the last few months, we’ve seen Snowpiercer and Divergent, which also deal with what happens after a civil collapse. The Giver, the latest in this weird trend, approaches a now-familiar topic from a new angle and, of the three, it’s the most visually arresting.

If we’re keeping score, The Giver lacks the wit and political sophistication of Snowpiercer, but it avoids the sentimentality and teen romance quality of Divergent. What’s especially interesting is that the world it creates doesn’t look bad at all, at least at first glance. Everyone’s clean. Everyone’s well-fed. Everyone has a nice house. Things could be a lot worse.

We see Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who narrates the story, and watch him with his two closest friends, Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush). They just seem like normal kids, laughing and riding bicycles past white buildings that look exactly like computer monitors from 1988. To see these early scenes is to think that there’s just something irreducible about human nature, that no matter what the environment, people will always be more or less the same. In fact, the journey of the movie suggests something else – that a rigid system can numb and distort the most essential aspects of the human character.

As in Divergent (as well as in the 2008 City of Ember), The Giver begins with the young graduates about to be assigned their roles in society. They don’t get to choose. The elders choose for them. Jonas lands the most prestigious and bizarre job of all, to become his generation’s “Receiver.” He will know things that even the society’s elders don’t know, all of human history, the glorious and the ghastly; all the ancient social practices, and all the emotions. In a city in which the whole population is on mood stabilizers, Jonas will get off them and actually start feeling things.

Jonas’ transition, from deadened to impassioned, is illustrated by the cinematography, which moves slowly from glossy black-and-white into muted and then saturated color over the first half of the movie. To watch Jonas getting educated is irresistible, partly because it’s always fun to see someone marveling at what we already know. Beyond that, director Philip Noyce introduces stirring montages to simulate the rush of fresh knowledge, illustrated by brightly colored images of sunsets on the ocean, tribal dances, and Renaissance wedding ceremonies. By showing Jonas the beauty of the world and the occasional splendor of people, Noyce is showing those things to us.

The transmitter of knowledge – The Giver of the title – is played by Jeff Bridges with all the sadness, suppressed frustration and dignity that comes with wildly superior knowledge. The movie depicts his house, laden with books, as literally sitting on top of a cloud, a privileged view that takes on a melancholy aspect on repeat viewings. Meryl Streep plays the smiling, blond chief elder, whose bumbling and motherly facade hides a dark and pessimistic view of humanity. But then, it’s not as if humanity’s reputation hasn’t been earned.

Someone should come along and do a book on the treatment of the post-apocalypse in 21st century American cinema, because there are odd parallels and currents between films that can’t be addressed in a review. Such a book would be certain to become a bestseller – but not until after the apocalypse.

Aldous Huxley wrote about the use of drugs to lull the populace in Brave New World, but he was thinking of drugs that made people feel good. He wasn’t thinking about the drugs we have now, that enable people to feel less, or nothing. The Giver takes a tortured individual’s dilemma and turns it into a societal question: If our emotions make us human, but our emotions keep leading us into catastrophe, how much of our essence are we willing to give up just get some peace?

Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holes.

Director: Philip Noyce.

Screenwriters: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide. Based on the novel by Lois Lowry.

A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 94 minutes. Violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.

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