Once More into the Apocalypse
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
The good thing about the apocalypse, if you happen to survive it, is that the society that then evolves is so nice and orderly…everything in its place, y’know. No anger, competition, hunger, strife or pestilence. Boy, they sure learned their lesson. And gee, all the architecture is so neo-Guggenheim museum. The bad thing is, it’s a stultifying bore. Which is why Brenton Thwaites’s Jonas, the starry-eyed protagonist in director Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s best seller, figures there has to be a better way.
You’ve seen this ad nauseam in literature and film…the utter impossibility of us humans finding some middle ground between the organized chaos and willy-nilly silliness we call government and the restrictive Orwellian destiny sci-fi futurists inevitably predict for us. Nonetheless, in order to form a more perfect union, to coin a phrase, it is necessary to inform each succeeding generation of the political quagmire they’ll be wrestling with…to warn them of the fascism that hides in easy fixes. Miss Lowry’s book does its civic duty.
Happily, thanks to the author’s injection of present-minded sensibilities eagerly lapped up by the kids it was ostensibly written for, director Noyce is able to fashion some new wrinkles into the cautionary tale. Solid acting, especially from Jeff Bridges in the title role and Brenton Thwaites as his prodigy, plus an energetic pace and superb production standards make for an engaging, high-minded experience. Ne’er-do-wells aside, it is among humanity’s finer instincts to hope that our prospective heirs will get it right.
On first blush, as we are introduced to the troika of pals at the center of the saga, it looks like things for these denizens of many years hence are going quite swimmingly. On the evening of the Ceremony of Twelves, when they will be assigned their occupations for life, Jonas, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) champ at the bit with anticipation. Yet slowly but surely, hints of uncertainty, albeit so subtly woven, give us pause…alerting that these young cohorts are perhaps not completely lost to conformity.
But what happens if you don’t toe the company line…if you aren’t completely accepting of the prescribed Sameness? We fear we’ll find that out after the already questioning Jonas receives his assignment…surely a major honor. No sundry vocation for this bright lad, no siree. He will study to be the next Receiver of Memory, a human repository of all the utopian community’s memory and heritage, tutored by Jeff Bridges’s noble sage. Now his thoughts wander even further beyond the pale of obedience.
The chemistry is ennobling, this wise Socrates allowed to live outside the confines and strictures of the “perfect” community with Jonas’s Plato learning at his knee. Of course the process is fraught with pitfalls and flaws in theory, which makes us wonder what the Elders, currently led by Meryl Streep, had in mind when they fashioned the ambiguous process. In a true dictatorship, obeisance to even the slightest hint of enlightenment, or to show concern for a supposedly failed and decadent past, would surely be verboten.
The lessons are at once beautiful, harsh, epiphanic and, in proper science fiction style, full of metaphors about our current civilization. It is an ideal, a paean to education…a great teacher and his formidable, eager student anxious to bite the apple. Combining good old fashioned instruction with a telepathic/download thing The Giver does by grasping Jonas’s forearms and thinking real, real hard, the kaleidoscopic array of human emotion and experience is near overwhelming.
Expectedly, as he learns about these previously hidden wonders that have been snatched from his psyche courtesy of the culture’s compulsory drug program, Jonas can’t help but want to impart the revelations to his best friends. But that’s a no-no, and soon his behavior begins to try the patience of Miss Streep’s autocrat. Compounding the problem, it seems The Giver’s last attempt at transferring his knowledge also proved a source of consternation for those powers that be, as well as a personal tragedy. The plot thickens.
Shades of George Lucas’s “THX 1138” (1971) and a host of other such parables, it is a recurring theme that goes as far back as when Pharaoh had misgivings about his brief moment of tolerance. Nope, the despot decides, it’s not going to work. After them!
The story switches gears with a vengeance, the philosophical and prophetic stuff culminating in a traditional rampage of derring-do. However, the film rises above its derivativeness courtesy of some fine special effects, a panoply of the neatly imagined era’s rather nifty furnishings, and a surprise twist or two. And so “The Giver” bequeaths viewers with an exciting and thought provoking sojourn to the latest Brave New World.
“The Giver,” rated PG-13, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Phillip Noyce and stars Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush. Running time: 94 minutes