In the year 2048, after a global war, survivors have formed a scientifically advanced utopia where there are no different races and human feelings are nullified with daily medication. All citizens have had their memories erased of the old days. Once a lifetime one individual is chosen to bear the burden of containing these 'harmful' memories. That person is designated the Receiver of Memory. On graduation day, eighteen year old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is shocked to discover he has been chosen for this task. He is apprenticed to the so-called Giver (Jeff Bridges) who maintains a vast library of knowledge. As Jonas progressively absorbs the totality of human experience his mind awakens to the realization life was a lot better before human beings numbed themselves to the wonder of life.
Based on the much beloved 1993 novel by Lois Lowry The Giver was a pet project for actor turned producer Jeff Bridges who originally intended for his father Lloyd Bridges to play the title role. By the time he was able to secure backing from reliable children's literature adapters Walden Media and the Weinstein Company (uh-oh), Lloyd had sadly passed away. So Jeff adopted the role and used his new-found clout in the wake of an Oscar win for Crazy Heart (2009) to rope in some high profile special guest stars including country music sweetheart Taylor Swift (in a role significant to the plot but with such miniscule screen time her fans are liable to feel gypped), Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård as Jonas' emotionless, vaguely sinister parents (an interesting departure from the young adult fiction norm even though the actors seem miscast), and most notably Meryl Streep as the outwardly courteous yet ruthless matriarch who comes to see Jonas as an insidious threat. Which of course begs the question, if the past is considered so dangerous by the ruling elite why do they have a Receiver of Memory at all, let alone entrust the task to a hormonal adolescent? It is worth noting however that in the novel the protagonists are considerably younger and were "aged up" so the film could cash in on the post-Twilight (2008), post-Hunger Games (2012) teen fantasy craze.
Lowry's novel was published at a time when young adult fantasy fiction was still a relatively new phenomenon. It not only made an impact in school libraries across America but proved remarkably influential which conversely is why Philip Noyce's film was not as huge at the box office as those adaptations of other teen lit favourites that lifted its ideas. A curious if not unappealing hybrid of a vintage Disney drama with one of George Pal's now-quaint visions of a post-apocalyptic future society (at times Bridges evokes Peter Ustinov's character in Logan's Run (1976) which was at an early stage set to be produced by Pal), The Giver is stilted in parts. Yet it has a sweetness and nurturing edge at odds with the fashionable dystopia of Hunger Games or the action movie trappings of the thematically very similar Divergent (2014) that in its better moments reflects the source material's magic and charm.
Noyce recycles a visual conceit previously employed by Hunger Games director Gary Ross in Pleasantville (1998) wherein the film starts out in black and white and gradually blooms into colour as the characters grow more worldly in knowledge about the human condition. Some felt the choice of images (a village dance, wild animals, children at play, Nelson Mandela, and what come across like allusions to Citizen Kane (1941) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) far too banal to convey the sum totality of human existence, but it is worth keeping in mind this is a film for children. The colour sequences really do pop out and make an impact much as the sensory overload alters Jonas' view of the world forever. To The Giver's credit, it is a film of ideas not pointless explosions and if the execution proves achingly sincere, there are worse flaws. Granted the idea that a society dominated by science alone would result in a sterile world devoid of emotions is very Hollywood and the message that it is okay to be an individual even in a world that prizes conformity above all else is a tried and tested teen lit trope. Nevertheless the story's steadfast belief that life should be embraced wholeheartedly, highs and lows, joy and pain remains a beautiful message. Events take a dark turn when Jonas unearths sinister secrets lurking at the heart of utopia and thereafter the films becomes a more conventional adventure with chases and hair-raising escapes from robot drones. Noyce fumbles a few plot points and emotional beats but deftly intertwines Jonas heartfelt romancing of Fiona (Odeya Rush) and desperate desire to protect the infant he has grown to love with the underlining quest to redeem the human race. Alas the closing scene leaves too many unanswered questions.