Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Giver Review

The Giver is one of my all-time favorite books. It introduced me into dystopian fiction, into Science Fiction, into minimalist prose. It introduced me into complex morality and the question of whether the ends justify the means. I walked into the movie carrying those preconceptions (and others) with me.

I'll start by saying that the movie is much better than the trailers make it out to be. Yes, it draws some details in execution from the modern dystopian YA movies that have sprung up in the last few years--I'll get to a few of those soon--but it also makes an honest effort to retain the voice and the message of the book. It stumbles, but it never falls on its face. So if the trailers have made you CERTAIN that the movie will be a total waste of time, then they fooled you as much as they did me.

To tell the truth, I was lukewarm about even seeing this movie. Considering how beloved the book is to me, and how little I liked from what I saw in the trailer, I mostly came along for this because I knew we were watching Guardians of the Galaxy right afterward (I have a review of Guardians already posted).

The best thing I can say about The Giver is that it has heart. the people involved in this movie cared about it. Jeff Bridges manages to fit into the role of The Giver better than I expected him to, which is not to say that I expected anything less than his usual excellence in the performance, which he delivers. Meryl Streep is much less of a bland antagonist than she's at first presented; while understated, she is still a character with depth and passion--her character succeeds in a way that, say, Kate Winslet's character in Divergent fails. The three playing the leading teens in the story, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, and Cameron Monaghan, are all adequate at the very least.* Brenton gives a particularly strong performance in the lead. The supporting cast works as well, to a greater or lesser extent. Even the worst performance isn't bad enough to distract. 

The music is good, the drama is believable, the action is passable. The sets vary from forgettable to ASTOUNDING.

Actually, maybe the best thing I can say about it is: PART OF IT IS IN BLACK-AND-WHITE!!!!!

Ok, there's the good stuff. Here's the bad, and the "Huh?"

This movie has a telling problem. That is, rather than SHOWING the audience something, it tends to TELL the audience. They maintain the narration specifically for the purpose of spoon-feeding the viewer information or telling the viewer what to feel. Also, the dialogue has a lot of exposition that could have been delivered more realistically.

The director isn't a great fit. I noticed from the opening scene, which has an intentional "Leave It to Beaver" tone. The direction drew me out of the movie, occasionally. Not...bad, precisely, just odd. Out of curiosity, I looked into the director, and some of his other works. Phillip Noyce has many movies under his belt, including The Bone Collector and A Clear and Present Danger. Notice anything yet? Noyce directs very good thrillers. Of which The Giver isn't one. A talented man given something outside his specialty.

They age the characters by a good six years. Having seen some of the movies that try to get by with terrible child actors (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), I don't blame them for not wanting to gamble on getting good ones. But it seems as though it sometimes slips the writer's mind that the characters are older, as often their characterization lapses into childishness. And to be honest, having seen some movies elevated by capable child actors (Interview With A Vampire, Harry Potter series), I tend to think that they probably should have remained loyal to the source, rather than following the trend.

Speaking of which, the thing that damaged the movie more than anything else was the insistence to follow YA Dystopia trends in the adaptation. Late teen characters? Check. Overblown romance with lead male and lead female? Action ending? Check. Futuristic tech everywhere? Check.

Some of these are understandable. The romance is only one part of an overall larger part in the story for both Fiona (romantic interest) and Asher (best friend). The movie gives them more time to develop, and more importance in the plot, than the book, which I honestly consider an improvement. And the future technology was unavoidable--though I don't remember the tech level ever being a major focus in the book, the book tended to leave out any extraneous details and let you make them up yourself.

Some are less forgivable. The climax should be a character moment, but they turn it into an action scene that feels not only implausible to the point of absurdity, but unnecessary and BORING. The worst part about this isn't that it rips you out of the movie right when it should be at its most captivating, but that the time spent focusing on unnecessary, tacked-on teen trends, is time that should have been spent on small moments early in the movie that develop setting or character. 

The crime this movie commits is making The Giver feel like a knock-off of the Dystopian YA stories coming out over the last few years, when in reality, The Giver was one of the works helped to found the genre, 20 years ago. 

I want to be clear that I didn't HATE this movie. I didn't even dislike it, really. It is, however, flawed enough to keep me from truly endorsing it. I give it 6.5/10. 

SPOILERS ahead as I discuss in detail certain aspects of the plot. Also, rambling ahead. 

*I originally had Odeya Rush's performance as one of my gripes. I complained that she became MORE wooden after she stopped taking the emotion-suppressant injections--that she was MORE emotionless. But my brother pointed out that it may simply have been her not knowing how to react to everything going on. Jonas had a frame of reference, given by the memories, so that he could react to the events at the end. Fiona has no such help, so she shuts down, overwhelmed by the circumstances. 

The entire climax consists of: "Dead baby.........dead again.........dead......dead." I didn't try to count all of the separate things that would have killed the infant. But suffice it to say that adding an action scene to a baby-carrying scene isn't the greatest idea.

How much would it have cost them to flashback to the Apple?

Why are there so many memories that go back to our history (the last 50 years or so). Are they saying that the end of the world happens in our generation? Before the last people who were in, say, the Vietnam war die? 

I love how blase they are about demonstrating future tech. The only pieces of technology I remember reading about were the injections, and "a jet" that flew overhead into town. Either of which could be twenty or thirty years old. Meanwhile, the movie has Tractor Beams and Holograms?

The Giver and the Chief Elder (Streep) have an argument at the end that's supposed to represent the struggle the viewer should be having. Only problems with that? The arguments aren't presented fairly enough to make this scene resonate. Also, they have the argument in front of all the other elders, with the speaker on to the room where Jonas's dad is about to execute Fiona. At one point, he even looks out to them like, "Are you serious? Take it outside. I'm trying to kill someone here."

I love the scene with the piano. Also, the Giver's house in general (and particularly that view) is just fantastic.

The conflict between Jonas and Asher is nice. It shows them going in opposite directions, and Fiona being torn between the two paths. I would have loved another ten minutes to flesh this progression out. 

One of my favorite things about the movie is using color as a characteristic of viewpoint. That is, the movie turns to color VERY gradually, as the injection leaves Jonas's system. It's an indication that cinema is catching on to VIEWPOINT, or the fact that each scene can be from a certain character's perspective, as happens often in novels. However, shouldn't all of the scenes from the Giver's viewpoint technically be in color, then?


Have any thoughts about something I mentioned? Did I miss something you'd like to point out? Feel free to comment!

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