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Movie review: ‘The Giver’ strong on ideas, just OK on action

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This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Brenton Thwaites, left, and Odeya Rush in a scene from "The Giver." (AP Photo/ The Weinstein Company, David Bloomer)

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 14 2014 04:51PM
Updated Aug 16, 2014 04:29PM

Before "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent" and a slew of imitators of dystopian young-adult fiction, there was "The Giver," Lois Lowry’s acclaimed 1994 novel of a seemingly perfect but actually repressive society.

A story that was a trailblazer in print has become a follower on film. It’s a shame, really, because director Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of "The Giver" is a solid thriller brimming with interesting ideas — and only feels derivative because other titles have gotten to the screen first.

In a future city called The Community, all conflict has been erased from people’s lives. They must follow strict rules, such as never lying and never seeking to stand out. (This is called "Sameness.") Daily medication removes emotions, while a council of Elders assigns people to their career assignments for life when they become 18. And, like the black-and-white world of "Pleasantville," their world is devoid of color.

Jonas (Brendon Thwaites) is different. Unlike his robotic parents (Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård), Jonas sees flashes of color and is eager to push the envelope of what’s acceptable behavior with his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). Jonas’ gifts make him a candidate, declares the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), to be the Receiver of Memory — the only person who retains information and emotions about life before Sameness.

Jonas trains with the current keeper of memories, The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who transmits flashbacks that expand the young man’s mind. The memories start out pleasant, like a thrilling sled ride through the snow (filmed near Utah’s Solitude ski resort), but also include scenes of suffering, loss and even the horrors of war.

The script, by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, goes through the now-familiar paces of the young-adult thriller, as Jonas transitions from loyal citizen to dangerous rebel. The transition feels a bit forced, largely because Thwaites (recently seen in "Oculus" and "Maleficent") is a less-than-expressive actor — and we can imagine what a young male performer with the range of, say, Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley could do with the role.

The older members of the cast make up for it, though. Streep is a tower of serene menace, using the Sameness’ rigid rules as a mask for dictatorial control. Bridges makes The Giver gruff and temperamental, feeling the weight of being this society’s tortured conscience.

Noyce ("Salt," "Patriot Games") handles the plot mechanics well, but he is more interested in exploring the ideas behind the plot. He compiles some fascinating montages of human behavior (some taken from Ron Fricke’s kaleidoscopic documentaries "Baraka" and "Samsara") to illustrate everything The Giver imparts to Jonas — creating a challenging visual vocabulary that illustrates beautifully all that the black-and-white "perfection" of The Community has lost.

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