Dystopia makes three in 'The Giver'

  • Article by: MICK LASALLE , San Francisco Chronicle
  • Updated: August 14, 2014 - 3:12 PM

REVIEW: “The Giver” is the latest, and most visually stunning, drama about a post-apocalyptic world.  |  ★★★ out of 4 stars

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This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Katie Holmes, left, and Alexander Skarsgard in a scene from "The Giver."

Photo: David Bloomer, Associated Press - Ap

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After the apocalypse, order is all-important. We know this, not only because that makes intuitive sense, but because, just in the past 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.

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.

We watch Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who narrates the story, with his two closest friends, Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush). They 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 something irreducible about human nature, that people will always be more or less the same, no matter what the environment. 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,” the film begins with the young graduates about to be assigned their roles in society. 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.

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. Director Phillip Noyce also introduces stirring montages to simulate the rush of fresh knowledge.

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. Meryl Streep plays the smiling chief elder, whose bumbling and motherly facade hides a dark and pessimistic view of humanity.

“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 to get some peace?

★★★ out of 4 stars
  • THE GIVER ⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

    Rating: PG-13 for a mature thematic image and sci-fi action/violence

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