Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Giver

In a world where...the Dude is the wisest man in all the land...One Man must...

Or something like that. Jeff Bridges has been trying to get his movie made for 20 years, apparently having filmed a home-movie version with his father and his brother Beau's kids a few decades back. So, I suppose we have The Hunger Games to thank for this teen-dystopic-future-drama.

In this future world, the population lives on an isolated plateau, protected from all harm, protected from competition, feelings, discomfort, with everything decided for them by a central planning committee. In other words, it's the end game of "soft" socialism.

Not that this is ever overtly expressed, of course. (Can you imagine?) But, really, the idea is that there's a completely safe, pre-planned world, free of chaos, with job security and 24/7 monitoring combined with rules for everything, and that seems to be the way our world is going.

Except for the "free of chaos" part, but eventually pharmaceuticals will get up to snuff.

The monkey in the wrench here is that the society (for some unexplained reason) feels a need to preserve history, and this is done through a quasi-mystical telepathic process. Our hero is this generation's designated receiver, and Jeff Bridges himself is the eponymous Giver.

The problem is, the rules don't apply to The Giver: He is simultaneously subjected to the history of Man while being weaned off his Ritalin (or whatever), and thus exposed to all sorts of emotions and alien enthusiasm toward life. He also exposes his friends and "family" to it.

I put "family" in quotes because it's an interesting construct here: It looks like a family, with a mother and father and a little sister, but the mother and father aren't married, and the children aren't produced by their union. This means that their first loyalties are to the community. (Remember, if you see something, say something!)

It's not exactly spelled out but I don't think anyone has sex in this world. Babies are made through artificial insemination or possibly in vitro, then implanted into women who are designated breeders, and on birth, immediately removed from the breeders and given to other families to raise-ish.

School is coordinated by the central authority and everyone is designated the job they're best for by their 18th year.

There's a kind of naive sincerity to the proceedings that make this all work. I've gone on rants before about sci-fi dystopias that kind of fail their initial premise, i.e., they haven't really created much of a dystopia. Or more accurately, while the trade-offs are there, every society has trade-offs and you have to make the case for why this particular trade-off is bad enough to be called "dystopic". (Especially against the backdrop of our current world.)

In this case, I kept feeling like "Well, yeah, a lot of people would trade a lot of things for a world where they had complete security." If not feeling emotion freed you from the bad ones, a lot of people would make that trade. If being designated for a particular role meant you had a job for life, a lot of people would make that trade.

So, the world looks so perfect and well-ordered, that you can see the appeal, but when The Receiver is experiencing real emotions for the first time, you (and he) begin to realize what was lost. And then, when he gets a taste of the chaos and pain caused by real emotions, you can at least understand the logic that went behind creating this world in the first place.

Good acting from Jeff Bridges, who does his usual "just enough to not evoke all those other roles" things he does, where you know it's him but you're not confusing it with Rooster Cogburn or The Dude or whoever. Meryl Streep is...well, she's Streeping it up here. Brenton Thwaites (whose name I spelled wrong in the review of Oculus) does a fine job as Jonas. Odeya Rush, who was in last year's Jim Mickle/Nick Damici cannibal horror collaboration We Are What We Are, evokes a young Amy Irving.

The supporting players also do a fine job: Alexander Skarsgard is the father, Cameron Monaghan plays the friend (whose emotions seem a little less well-checked to me than others'), little Emma Tremblay, already a veteran of dystopias with last year's Elysium, plays the little sister. The now middle-aged Katie Holmes plays the mother. (I mention that she's middle-aged because I'm sure that'll blow somebody's mind. I never watched that show she was on so it means nothing to me.)

It's not all beer-and-soma, though: The fact that everyone's walking around with muted emotions means that the acting is very often subtle, and the drama has to come from the situation rather than the acting at least for most characters through most of the movie.

It's also short, barely over an hour-and-a-half, so it doesn't hit the kind of epic feel of a Hunger Games, and a lot of stuff had to be condensed, I'm quite sure. We all really liked it, though: The Boy and The Flower as well as I.

It's not a challenge to figure out why critics hate this film while audiences are much more favorable to it (32/67 rating on RT). First, it is, essentially a trashing of central command-and-control type societies. They can (sorta) work, the movie argues, if you give up your memory, your feelings, your humanity. Indeed, the people of this society can be seen as the sort of perfect people who make up socialist's dream societies, all focused on the goals the community has decided for them. They have literally immanentized the eschaton.

But probably more powerful and direct offense comes in the community's selective retention process for babies. This involves technicians measuring infants along various metrics, and deciding which ones live and which ones die. The society's lies allow people to believe that such babies (and old people, for that matter) are "released", where "release" is like Logan's Run's Sanctuary, or The Island's, uh, Island.

This is pretty powerful stuff watching babies being killed. Maybe you can avoid the connection between that and abortion, particularly selective abortion where Down's kids and the like are "released", but I couldn't.

I'm guessing the critics couldn't either, and thus the very low score.

Nonetheless, it is a good film, about on a par with the even more overlooked How I Live Now, which I realized I can't link to because I still haven't written the review.

It didn't do gangbusters at the box office, either, so we may not be seeing a sequel. The book had two or three. If you're in the mood for some teen dystopia, though, it's worth a watch.

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