'The Giver' is as shallow, monotonous and visually flat as the dystopian society it purports to condemn
The Giver The Weinstein Company
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenplay: Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on the novel by Lois Lowry
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Odeya Rush, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Monaghan and Taylor Swift
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes
August 15, 2014
(out of four)
I was going to offer The Giver the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the quality of its early black-and-white photography - possibly the ugliest, flattest, blandest black-and-white photography I have ever seen - was a deliberate creative choice, meant to exemplify the ugly, flat blandness of the movie's controlled dystopia.
But then, that excuse wouldn't account for the rest of the film, which is every bit as drab, visually and otherwise, even when color starts bleeding in as Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) perceives it for the first time. Or rather, especially when the color starts to bleed in. In this future world - which is referred to only as "the community" and which seems to occupy only a tiny mountain plateau in the middle of nowhere - all color has been removed from existence. And all emotion, all choice, all art, all knowledge of the past. This reality is sustained by daily injections that no one ever thinks twice about. Every family unit is structured the same way; every person is assigned his or her role; there is no genuine conflict of any kind. The community elders sustain order.
There is but one exception to the society's rules - the Receiver of Memory, who possesses the history of the world, in all its ugliness and beauty. The Receiver can see color, hear music, feel love and pain. And when he gets to a certain age, he passes these things on to the next in line - the Receiver becomes the Giver. It is for this most special task that Jonas is chosen; as his friends are assigned to begin training in their future vocations, he spends his days with the Giver (Jeff Bridges), exposed to the secret history of the world and all that comes with it, no longer a slave to his daily injections or most of the other rules that come along with it. Suddenly he can see the world as it truly is.
Which brings us back to the beginning - about that whole seeing thing. The Giver's opening 20 minutes is presented in black-and-white - though we get brief glimpses of color from Jonas' point-of-view, some evidence that he can perceive things somewhat differently from everyone else. When he begins his training, the color spectrum opens up to him, and yet the film can't find any convincing or interesting way to express that.
Well, I take that back. There is one moment - when the Giver first starts to pass along memories (which are primarily passed on telepathically, through touch), there's a breathtaking shot of a sunset (of course) at sea. From what I recall, it's the one and only shot that actually gets across the beauty of the world. The disheartening thing is how much of the other images the Giver passes along are just old stock footage. (I wonder if Jonas wonders why so many of his new memories are in faded, pixelated old video footage.) The filmmakers apparently didn't have the budget and/or inclination to create most of the memories and historical fragments, which may have given them the kind of visceral impact that a montage of video clips really can't. (And considering the memory-transfer scenes are set up as being this big jolt to Jonas' system, basically like Neo downloading kung-fu, the ho-hum imagery creates a pretty major disconnect.)
But the depiction of color is the thing that bothered me most. Jonas begins to see color gradually seep into his black-and-white existence. Initially, the colors are muted - but even the muted colors are meant to be (and certainly should be) astonishing for someone who's never seen them. And they simply aren't. The dark amber of his friend/crush Fiona's hair has no impact even against the grey* monotony of its surroundings. The green of the grass, the blue of the sky - they're not just muted, they're downright ugly.
* The grey almost comes across as a light purple, actually.
In countless films, we've seen how extraordinary muted color palettes can be on screen; for director Phillip Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery, there's no excuse for their dingy, often hideous expression of those colors*, from orange and green to black and white.
* Worth noting: in the official trailer, posted below, the colors look drastically different than they do in the actual film.
This is, after all, about Jonas' personal, subjective interpretation of this brand new experience. It's not about the objective reality of what the colors would actually look like as they faded in slowly; it's entirely about the impact they would have for a character seeing color - and so much more - for the first time. So where's the expressionism? Where is any visual expression of this presumably remarkable experience? Noyce and Emery are so timid in their use of color, it doesn't - can't - register as much of a change at all. It looks like cheap technique and cheap filmmaking.
Beyond that, the use of color is deployed inconsistently from a narrative standpoint. For a while, the film uses color only in scenes featuring Jonas and/or the Giver (which makes sense). But then in a key late scene involving Bridges, we're somehow back to strict black-and-white again.
Perhaps that's a nitpick. With a movie this bad, it becomes all too easy to attack little oversights and annoyances like that. But aside from the disastrous visual experience that is The Giver, the narrative itself is just about the laziest piece of dystopia to come around in a while. Which is saying something. Among recent entries, it's probably most similar to Divergent (though obviously the source material has been around for much longer), which wasn't especially good but at least gave itself time to tell its story. The Giver is a 90-minute leap through a story that touches only on the most obvious and ham-fisted of dystopian trademarks.
I first read the Lois Lowry novel in about fifth grade, and I remember liking it quite a bit. I don't know if, were I to read it today, it would suffer from the same problems as the movie, or if it would still retain its power. Either way, I can't imagine anything that could sully its reputation more than this film.