It's odd to watch a film about the rediscovery of love, faith, passion, and color, and for the film to be so by-the-numbers colorless. That's the case with The Giver, adapted from Lois Lowry's entry-level dystopian science-fiction novel, widely read in junior high schools since its publication in 1993.
Perhaps young viewers will be more swept up in the story, but more likely they'll have their first experience of saying, "The book was better." A la Ender's Game, Hollywood has aged up the novel's hero from twelve to sixteen, as well as sexing up the story with more action in the climax (courtesy of Salt and Clear and Present Danger director Phillip Noyce), and beefing up a supporting role to justify the (unnecessary) casting of a paycheck-cashing Meryl Streep. Otherwise, the particulars remain in place, just listlessly.
In the seemingly utopian Community, war, discord, hunger, and even inclement weather are things of the past, though the place is a wash of antiseptic sameness policed in approved clothing, daily morning medication, and calls for "precision of language." At the annual Ceremony of Advancement, teen Jonas (twenty-five-year-old Brenton Thwaites) wins the respected role of Receiver because he has, according to the Chief Elder (Streep), "all four attributes: intelligence, integrity, courage, and the capacity to see beyond."
Jonas will inherit the Community's memories from the previous Receiver (an extra-gravelly Jeff Bridges)—who accepts his rechristening as "the Giver." This oral tradition makes for the film's most interesting sequences, mostly due to the quirky presence of Bridges. All of this unfolds in literal black and white, an admittedly bold move for a wide-release film (though one also clamored for by fans of the book). As he learns the cost of the Community's peace, Jonas becomes entranced with colorful visions of sledding through snow, music and dance, and emotions including love.
Soon, Jonas realizes that he shares with his mentor a skepticism that the tradeoff was worth it, especially when the lad learns of more the more sinister extremes the powers that be will indulge to preserve the peace. In these broad strokes of suppressed emotion and repressed humanity, The Giver has primal power as a relevant allegory for all we willfully choose to ignore out of emotional self-preservation and fearful clinging to luxuriant privilege.
Unfortunately, even with Marco Beltrami's overwrought score, Noyce can't make convincing drama of Lowry's raw material, which first has to establish dullness before stoking fires within its characters (and loping toward the goofiest imaginable deus ex machina). The hero trio of youngsters—also including Odeya Rush as Jonas' love interest, and Cameron Monaghan as their mutual buddy—come off as beautiful but bland. Monaghan at least plays his internal conflict credibly; Thwaites' inability to do more than pull stricken or joyful faces (and Rush's to convincingly overcome her torpor) irreparably damages the story's impact, let down as it is by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide's lackluster script.
It's too bad that this junior version of Fahrenheit 451 turned out drippy, but it's not entirely witless. The casting of Scientology escapee Katie Holmes as one of the happily brainwashed is, momentarily, almost enough to convince us that The Giver has a sense of humor.