Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush star in a scene from the movie "The Giver". (CNS photo/courtesy The Weinstein Company)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: (3 reels out of 5)
is a dark and disturbing tale that often hits too close to home to be
enjoyable, but it should challenge the complecency of many viewers. Some
films focus too much on “ideas” rather than the story narrative; The Giver
is an idea movie on steroids that spends far too little on plot and
character development while throwing out a huge number of themes, yet
without getting into much depth. In short, it’s a mile wide but an inch
deep. While movies should touch on difficult topics, they should still
be entertaining. The Giver is as entertaining as its grim color palate and a bit vague in its central messagebut it is still compelling.
story is adapted from the Louis Lowry 1993 classic that many middle
schoolers had to read in the 1990s, and it is faithful to the original
while updating subplots for a 21st century audience. The Giver serves up yet another YA dystopian fantasy where adolescents fight an oppressive, Orwellian society. It has the eugenics of Brave New World, the euthanasia and claustrophobia of Logan’s Run, the teenage angst of Divergent, and the emotional stagnation and medical brainwashing of Equilibrium.
This future is called the Community, a closed world on a misty plateau
that seems to only hold a few thousand people. It is a rigid society
with strictly enforced rules including no emotions, sex, or lying.
Babies are created in a lab and placed in stagnant families that really
exist to keep children in line while the elderly and sick are taken to a
place called “Elsewhere.”
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and his
friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) nervously
awaited the Ceremony where they will be assigned a job for life. Jonas
is given the unique role of Receiver of Memories, the only member of the
society who has access to the distant past and advises the Council of
Elders on important decisions. Jonas is trained by the Giver (Jeff
Bridges) who telepathically shows Jonas positive memories, including
music, love, happiness, childbirth, andgasp!colors. However, Jonas is
also shown fear, hate, war, and murder. The Giver explains that the
Community had to set aside all love to remove all hate, ignore all good
to stop all evil. Jonas, however, thinks this was a bad bargain.
Community enforces their rules by giving every citizen a potent
injection that stifles their emotions and individual drive, but it is
doomed to fail because human nature cannot be fought; only misdirected.
Catholic teaching understands that social norms and artificial laws are
important and useful but shouldn’t be deified. St. Paul explains that
“everything is lawful but not everything is beneficial.” For Christians,
life is not about rules but about right relationship. Good deeds flow
from a love of neighbor, which is ultimately a love of Christ. If rules
are followed simply as a Kantian imperative, they will eventually begin
For a film produced by the Weinsteins, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Steep, The Giver
is remarkably pro-life, not just in terms of abortion but euthanasia,
genetic testing, and a whole host of bioethical and political issues.
Babies are constantly mentioned and seen throughout the film. Until
newborns are proven healthy, they are not allowed into homes or even to
be named. Jonas’ father (Alexander Skarsgård) breaks this rule by taking
in Gabriel (played by four different infants), hoping he will catch up
with the others. Later, Jonas witnesses his father committing an act of
infanticide. Even as I write this, it’s hard to hold back tears of
agony, so powerful is the scene. Nothing in the scene is hidden;
director Phillip Noyce keeps the camera on the poor nameless baby as she
is injected, slowly dies, and thrown down a garbage chute.
I’ve seen hundreds of R-rated films, but even The Boondock Saints and The Wolf of Wall Street
had nothing as disturbing as this. “They told me they made a society
free from murder,” Jonas remarks. “But they didn’t. They just called it
something else.” That quote alone almost compelled me to give the film
five reels. When Gabriel is scheduled to be taken to Elsewhere, Jonas
rescues him and flees the Community. If he can’t save the whole world,
at least he can save just one person.
counter-cultural feature is the positive depiction of the importance of a
nuclear family. Deprived of real parents, the State becomes the
ultimate authority for everyone. Jonas’ mother (Katie Holmes) even spies
on him and reports his unorthodox actions to the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). Jonas feels a special connection to Fiona, but until he
receives the memories he has no word for it: love. He convinces
her to stop taking her injections and shares a private kiss. This stirs
something unseen in her, and she agrees to help him escape. Together,
they are able to give Gabriel a chance at life and become, in an odd
way, his parents. The Giver argues that children deserve a
mother and a father, and that social and political roles are a mirror of
the family, not the other way around.
Why have there been so many
dystopian fantasies on the big screen recently, and why have they all
done reasonably well? Among many people there is a prevailing sense of
dread. Doomsday Preppers would not exist unless it struck a
real nerve in the American public. And this tension is felt by both the
political left and the right. From the Iraqi War to the HHS Mandate,
from the Common Core to Citizens United, it many people feel
they are on a precipice, moments away from destruction. A common factor
is the violation of individual autonomy, and the solution is obvious.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Unlike the baby-boomers who created this mess, millennials still hold to
this dream, and these films affirm their expectations. Everyone has the
right to seek the Truth and live free from coercion. In many ways, The Giver
is an often dreary and even unpleasant cinematic experience, but it tackles important topics and I hope
it does well at the box office and serves as a challenging wake-up call.