About halfway through The Giver, I was reminded of a scene from Tim Burton's Ed Wood in which Johnny Depp, playing the titular "worst director ever," has a filmmaking revelation: "I could make an entire movie out of stock footage!" In the case of this adaptation of Lois Lowery's 1993 young-adult novel, it's more like: "I could make an entire movie out of color grading!" Although to be fair, there are long passages of the 94-minute movie that feel like stock footage.
The Giver tells the story of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man coming of age in a utopian community built from the ashes of an apocalypse called "The Ruin." The creepily ordered community (known as "The Community") is built on top of a mesa perpetually surrounded by clouds, and its people have no knowledge of the outside world. Indeed, they don't have very much knowledge of anything beyond their professions, which are chosen for them in a public ceremony (known as "The Ceremony") where the old, who have no memory of Logan's Run, are also given "release." His friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are given jobs as Nurturer and Drone Pilot, but Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memories. He is apprenticed to The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the psychic repository of all of the memories of the time before The Ruin.
Here's where the color grading comes in. The first act of the movie is in black and white, because members of The Community cannot perceive color, or indeed anything the The Elders (led by Meryl Streep) deem a threat to order and happiness. But as Jonas is given more and more knowledge of the Before Time by The Giver, his world, and thus the movie, slowly gains color. The colorization accelerates when Jonas decides not to take his daily injections of mind control drugs. As he learns the truth about the perfect world the Elders have built, he comes to understand why the last Receiver of Memories, Rosemary (Taylor Swift), only lasted two months before meeting some unknown but probably really bad fate. When he finds out that "release" is, of course, death, and that a baby named Gabriel who has been assigned to his family is scheduled for release, Jonas sets out to save The Community from itself by escaping to Elsewhere and thus, through some mechanism that makes about as much sense as the rest of the plot, restoring the memories to the people. I'll let you guess what happens from there, because what you come up with is probably going to be more interesting than The Giver's snoozer of a finale.
Director Phillip Noyce is clearly under orders to create the next big teen sensation adapted from a young adult novel, but the material he is working with lacks the depth of Harry Potter and none of his lead actors has the charisma of The Hunger Games' Jennifer Lawrence. Supposed hero Thwaites actually has scenes stolen from him by a hologram of Taylor Swift. Bridges, who has reportedly been trying to get this movie made for years, inexplicably speaks in a painful sounding croak, and Streep is, well, Meryl Streep in a Saruman wig.
I have not read the Newberry award-winning book upon which it is based, but it seems that Alfred Hitchcock's dictum that mediocre books make the best movies holds true. Lowery's book is meant to be allegorical and universal, but when Jonah actually finds a map marked "Plan For Sameness" that tells him how to defeat said plan, it's a real Mystery Science Theater moment. It's also hard to overlook the reactionary overtones as the genetically superior "chosen one" rebels against forced equality, the baby killing bad guys say "precision of speech" in place of "political correctness," and the promised land looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting where it is inexplicably Christmas all the time. The politics wouldn't be a problem if it was entertaining — after all, one of my favorite films of the century is The Incredibles, which has an Ayn Rand streak that renders the villain's motivations incoherent. But The Incredibles delivers the adventure goods, while The Giver can't execute a simple Hero's Journey plot for all of the speechifying. Even the central color grading gimmick was more successfully done by Pleasantville 16 years ago. For a film that claims to champion colorful nonconformity, The Giver is depressingly drab.