Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Giver (2014) - An Emotionally Stunted Road to Greatness

For over a decade, a film adaptation of Lois Lowry's award-winning 1993 novel The Giver had been a passion project for actor Jeff Bridges. After years of delays, stunted development, and various rights issues, the film was finally released in 2014 by Australian director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Clear and Present Danger), with Bridges taking on the titular role of an old man in a future dystopia who bears the burden of carrying the memories and emotions of the human race long after such things were eliminated from the rest of society.

The Giver is a nice looking film with solid cinematography and some classic sci-fi concepts and storytelling, focused more on allegory than sensible world building, that harkens back to The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek. It's a film that unfortunately falls short of its potential, in large part due to weak performances and misdirected acting that fails to capture the spirit of the words its hollow people use.

Noyce's film differs from Lowry's novels in a variety of ways, from character ages to roles to the importance of certain characters. It retains its main themes and plotting faithfully, sometimes to a fault. How loyal an adaptation is to its source material is largely unimportant to me, but for anyone heavily invested in changes, a few things will probably be bothersome. I'm not concerned with them.

Magical History Tour

An unnecessary voice over opens the film and explains its world; the year is 2048, decades after a terrible war devastated society. To maintain a peaceful world, communities are carefully engineered by drugs, eugenics, and psychological conditioning to remove emotions and desire, resulting in a world without conflict that lives mechanical lives side by side with ritualized euthanasia, constant surveillance, and patrol drones that make sure nothing gets out of order. The fact that a "perfect" world without crime and conflict needs a drone fleet, detention centers, and mostly unseen, armed soldiers to maintain its facade is mostly glossed over, but it raises the question of just how effective the society's conditioning really is.

Humanity's soul survives through The Receiver of Memory, a role passed down through generations. After graduation, 18 year old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is selected to inherit this title from the unnamed Giver (Jeff Bridges). The two form a psychic bond, through which The Giver allows Jonas to view memories and emotions, both joyful and horrific, of humanity's past. Jonas slowly awakens to the reality of his world, and to how much was lost to create an enduring peace.

There is no attempt at realism in the film's science. The society of The Giver is an impossibly designed one (there's a border at the end of the known world that when crossed by a Receiver of Memory can awaken the memories and emotions of the rest of society) but it serves its allegorical function well. The issues of what it means to be human, how emotion shapes us, and how there can be no good without bad are driving elements of the film. There are also obvious puberty metaphors, as Jonas enters adulthood and begins experiencing a physical change (through psychic powers) as well as a sexual awakening, as he takes notice of his longtime friend, Fiona (Odeya Rush). It's blunt, but in the same way much of the sci-fi on TV in the 60's and 70's was, giving the film a sort of retro vibe that's enhanced by its black and white visuals.

The Quest for Color

The Giver's visuals are the film's strongest element. It's a film I'd very much like to take a second look at on DVD with heavy use of the pause button, because there's some really nice contrast, depth, and composition here. Part of the film's premise is that along with emotion, people lost the ability to see in color. The majority of the first act is shot in full black and white with only brief, fleeting glimpses of color, a fact that caused two members of the audience I saw it with to walk out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film's trailer shows color versions of many scenes which are black and white in the actual movie.

As Jonas trains with the Giver and unlocks more of his emotional core, colors begin to leak into the world, muted at first but eventually full and vivid. The first additions of color have the appearance of a black and white picture artificially colored, rather than a color picture selectively turned monochrome. It gives the whole thing an eerie, unnatural feel that plays well into the old-school TV sci-fi style. Shooting color in a way that feels slightly wrong works well, as it's not what we're immediately and naturally familiar with, creating a connection between Jonas's reactions and the audience's.

The film's ghostly look is interrupted by incredibly bright flashes of memory as the Giver shares the human experience with Jonas. Many of the images Jonas experiences are uplifting and positive, from peace protests to weddings to long lost animals in a nature that no longer exists. These wordless montages say everything they need to with only brief glimpses of sight and sound. Later, Jonas experiences the worst of humanity, as he's thrown into a Vietnam flashback shot in a grainy, grindhouse style aesthetic. For all the film's flaws, Phillip Noyce shows a clear and strong understanding of film as a visual medium, and that's sometimes enough to overlook the lesser parts.

Emotionless Fury

A central premise of The Giver's world is that the people we're watching, with the exception of the Giver himself and, later, Jonas, are without emotion. The film tells us repeatedly that daily injections keep this society docile and calm, devoid of any passions that might cause a ruckus. The dialogue is written in a stilted, robotic fashion that emphasizes this idea. And yet, almost none of the film's principle characters work to sell this point.

There are some solid actors in this film: Bridges as the Giver, Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, and Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes as Jonas's parents. Bridges plays his curmudgeonly role well enough, but not on par with some of his better performances in other films. Streep and Holmes' characters are both meant to be without emotion, but appear to seethe with resentment and anger in a way that seems completely contradictory to the way they're written. Skarsgård, as Jonas's father and a caretaker of the newly born, comes the closest to playing a character who actually seems docile and mostly empty, but still shows sparks of joy and love.

Holmes' performance is by far the weakest in the film, as she looks frustrated at almost all times. As she scolds her son on his Precision of Language three or four times over the course of the film, she does so not as a machine, but as an angry parent sick of her kid's sass. There's nothing that differentiates this performance from any other weakly written frustrated mother role. Her performance feels the worst because her character has little else to her, but it seems wrong to blame Holmes for any of this when even Meryl Streep's acting betrays her character's writing. If anything, it's a failure of directing, which is a shame when Noyce got everything so right with the visual qualities of the film.

Anger isn't the only emotion these allegedly emotionless people show. Jonas's classmate Fiona is playful, happy, and screams with joy long before Jonas convinces her to give up her emotional suppressants. Jonas's little sister, Lilly (Emma Tremblay), is an energetic kid with a slightly bratty streak and a sense of humor. There's utterly nothing on screen that implies that her emotions are being tuned out, and again, it seems wrong to fault these actresses. The couple of shots of kids playing and smiling throughout don't help either. There's no Spock or Mr. Data here, which would have gone a long way to establishing the emptiness of this world as well as playing towards the classic sci-fi aesthetic of the film.

With the way he's written and directed, Brenton Thwaites plays Jonas about as well as he could be expected to. The role deserved an incredibly subtle awakening from cold and detached to warmth and joy, but Jonas begins the film kind, sympathetic, and inquisitive, and ends much the same. He becomes a fuller person, but the transition isn't as substantial as it needs to be. For the transformation to truly work, he should feel like the PG-13 version of a distant Kubrick character. Instead we're given a protagonist who's immediately likable and recognizably human; he should begin the story as neither.

If the film shows us one thing and says another, it's always important to ask why, and to try to figure out any sort of meaning behind that disconnect. In this case, I feel that it's a failure of directing the actors to match the words they're saying, but films are the product of hundreds of moving parts, so it's interesting to think of any potential answers beyond that. The world is shown to be a utopia, where there's no conflict over race or creed and selfishness and fear are wiped out. And yet, we don't see any multiethnic families, in spite of seeing plenty of races in the crowds. There is no religion, but the people recite the rules of society as reverent dogma. There's no crime, but police are still ready and waiting to stick a taser in someone's ribs and target people with remote drones.

It's possible, then, to read that this society hasn't eliminated emotion, only our understanding of what our emotions are, and that we're still bursting with passion just barely beneath the surface, whether we know it or not. It can function as another layer in the society's crumbling facade. Jonas's mother doesn't understand that she's constantly furious, and neither do the people around her, but maybe she actually is.

For this last section, I'll be discussing the film's ending. Do not read on if you're concerned with spoilers.

Salvation: One Final I Love You

The final act of the film revolves around two objectives for Jonas; the first is to rescue and escape with Gabriel, a baby that has been marked for euthanasia when he shows no genetic promise, and the second is to cross into the unknown world, across the distant Barrier of Memory. Doing so will purge the rest of the world of its inhuman qualities, and return their emotional potential to them. This would include the potential for greed, war, and cruelty, but by this point, it's hard to see anything in the society worth keeping. A culture that ceremonially kills both young and old who lack a useful function, as well as dissenters, is in need of a purging anyway.

Jonas and Gabriel's long trek through the wastelands is at times both sad and beautiful. There are some nice landscape shots, but they're so devoid of any life that it feels hopeless. When he finally reaches the spot where he believes the tower controlling the Barrier stands, Jonas finds nothing, and soon passes out from exposure to cold. When he awakes, Jonas is in a different place, the tower conveniently nearby, and the Barrier is just as he expected. He crosses it, unleashes some magic, and finds himself at a log cabin filled with warm light and Christmas carols. This house is seen in the very first memory that the Giver shares with Jonas, and its appearance in the real world is surreal. As Jonas prepares to enter, we cut to black and his story ends.

Back in his colony, a literal wave of emotion washes over the people. Everyone, from the Chief Elder to Jonas's family to wandering crowds, looks as if they just woke up from a long, long dream, and the light of the humanity awakens within them. Fiona is spared from her pending execution, and there's hope for the world.

Obviously, if taken as a literal, documented event, this makes no sense. It's a level of plot magic that's too bizarre to suspend disbelief, but I've got no problem with it. I don't think, on any level, that it's meant to be be anything but allegory, and I fully believe that Jonas died in those cold mountains, but through his life and death redeemed mankind and brought them salvation. Focusing on a realism that isn't present seems foolish.

In his brief time as Receiver of Memory, Jonas showed a new form of hope and kindness that his society hadn't felt in a long time. He brought music, dance, and love back into the world; both romantic love, with Fiona, and familial love, with Gabriel. Whether or not he crossed a magic barrier is irrelevant. He acted in a way that touched those around him and caused them to silently question just what it is they've been doing all this time. Fiona sits bound in a chair awaiting her lethal injection while the elders and those who guide society look on, while the Giver pleads for mercy with the Chief Elder who seems fully aware of the potential for both good and evil in man. Jonas's father is tasked as the executioner, but even without awakening via magic shows hesitation that he wouldn't have shown before the events of the film.

The execution stops, and Fiona lives. In the literal text of the film, it's because Jonas crosses the Barrier and sets everyone's emotions free. In the subtext, it's because his example has touched the lives of those around him, ushering in a last minute flash of light in a dark society. He serves as a Christ figure, dying alone to expel the horrible sin that's about to happen and in doing so redeeming mankind. At the same time, he's also the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, forcing the Fruit of Wisdom upon the human race. For all the good and bad that comes with this, Jonas has led to his society becoming a more realized, more human species. As a Christ figure, he has to die to usher in this change, and it's very fitting that the light he walks into at the end is filled with Christmas carols.

Final Thoughts

There's honestly a lot I like about this film, even if I have a very hard time getting beyond the problems with its acting. It's not a mediocre film, as I expected it to be, but rather a film that falls just short of being a very good one. That failure to reach its potential, but coming close, is way more frustrating than a truly bad movie would be. I recommend it, but with the caveat that it could easily be so much more. And to avoid it if bad science in sci-fi keeps you up at night.

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