Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dystopian teen film a maddening take on sci-fi

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Another year. Another movie about a teen saviour in a dystopian future. Sigh.

Following in the pop template of The Hunger Games, Divergent and Ender's Game comes The Giver, a science-fiction fable wherein a lad named Jonas, like Katniss, Tris and Ender before him, rocks his world.

When Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) comes of age (in the book, he's 12 and in the movie, he is predictably more teen-friendly/hunky), he expects to get a job in "the Community," the clean, peaceful, fascist suburban future-world he calls home. From birth, citizens are expected to obey the stringently enforced rules: tell the truth, use "precision of language" when communicating, and take their daily medication to tamp down an array of pesky feelings and emotions... including sexual desire.

Passed over for more conventional duties, Jonas is designated as the next "keeper of memories," which places him under the tutelage of current job-holder the Giver (Jeff Bridges). By merely gripping Jonas's arms, the mysterious elder can transmit a library of hitherto unknown experiences from the world's past into Jonas's consciousness: music, excitement, communal joy. Also: violence, war, and pain.

Jonas, given liberty to lie to his non-biological parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsg*rd), hides the nature of his searing revelations. Feeling pressure to maintain the status quo via the steely matriarch Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), both Jonas and the Giver start to give vent to their mutually growing conviction that the Community's robotic ideology is not as perfect as it is seems. Upping the ante, we learn that Jonas's predecessor Rosemary (Taylor Swift) rebelled 10 years earlier and -- uh-oh -- we don't speak about that now.

In a world where hormones are kept under chemical control, a romantic subplot is tricky, but the movie manages it, as Jonas turns to his female best friend Fiona (Odeya Rush) to share some of his learned secrets before a crisis in Jonas's family initiates a full-scale one-person rebellion.

In fairness, it must be noted that this movie's source material, a 1993 novel by Lois Lowry, substantially predates the The Hunger Games and Divergent books. One suspects both those series owe Lowry a debt for establishing a successful and lucrative sci-fi template.

But first doesn't mean better. Granted, this adaptation of Lowry's book by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, directed by Phillip Noyce, makes some risky moves. Much of it is in black and white to reflect the Community's drab, conventionalist world view. One scene, involving a medical procedure on an infant, is stunning and very disturbing in its matter-of-fact execution.

But even with its distinctive qualities, The Giver is ultimately tepid, with heavyweights Bridges and Streep looking and acting like antagonistic hippie cultists, while Thwaites gets swamped in the swirling currents of all those bad vibes.

Mostly, The Giver registers as a maddeningly poor excuse for science fiction. After going to the trouble and expense of creating a dystopia populated by Oscar-winning actors, the movie degenerates into goofy, anti-scientific fantasy of magic and miracles of such extremes, it makes a Greek tragedy's deus ex machina look like documentary realism.

As a good Community-dweller is expected to employ precision of language, good science fiction demands precision of science. The Giver resoundingly fails that test.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2014 D6

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