‘The Giver’s’ future is thrilling but a bit too familiar: 2.5 stars

08/14/2014 8:00 AM

08/14/2014 1:00 PM

If the literary aspects of “The Giver” sometimes fall flat, at least the cinematic ones sparkle.

Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel — which has sold more than 10 million copies — has become a vibrant visual assault, beginning with a black-and-white first act that transitions into color, rapid montages of global images, sweeping panoramas and roller-coaster motion.

Meanwhile, the book’s headier themes barely find a foothold; they aren’t that much different from similar dystopian blockbusters.

That’s the uneven vibe of “The Giver.” The movie exists in an “elsewhere” between powerful and derivative, intriguing and undercooked.

“We lived in a world where differences weren’t allowed,” says Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) as he gives us a tour of his futuristic society that is allegedly a utopia.

Together with best friends Fiona (Odeya Rush, who looks like a mini-Mila Kunis) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), he awaits a ceremony in which the Elders (led by Meryl Streep) decide lifelong careers for young people. They will be placed according to personalities and skill sets into jobs ranging from birther to drone pilot.

Concurrently, those in their old age will undergo the Celebration of Release to Elsewhere. Everyone in this monochromatic community believes this to be a rewarding physical place, not a euphemism for “kicked the bucket” or “sleeps with the fishes.” (Incidentally, “The Giver” is an enormous rip-off of 1976’s dystopian thriller “Logan’s Run” — just exchange the doublespeak term Elsewhere with Sanctuary.)

Jonas is singled out to become the Receiver of Memory — the most prominent and mysterious of vocations. He is sent for mentoring to a stone house near the edge of a cloudy cliff. This is home to the eponymous Giver (Jeff Bridges, chewing on his words like gobstoppers). As the lone person with memories of the past — all its glories and its burdens — he shares the info with Jonas during a mind-meld via clasped forearms.

But the Giver appears to have something else in mind, steering Jonas to choose between continuing the Sameness doctrine that rules the land or shaking things up a bit.

Like fellow young-adult adaptations “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “Ender’s Game,” we are introduced to a central character with extraordinary abilities who strives to change a repressive system. While the material seems late to the party, the direction by Phillip Noyce (“Patriot Games,” “Salt”) keeps the tale engaging.

With dynamic editing of the memory sessions, Noyce conveys a true sense of wonder, as when Jonas experiences sledding, having had no concept of snow in his climate-controlled upbringing. He confronts cruelty when he joins a poacher’s elephant hunt. These scenes (which the Giver calls “distant whispers of what is real”) are extremely intense for a movie ostensibly aimed at middle-school audiences.

Too bad the teen roles themselves are so tepid. Unlike Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley or Asa Butterfield, Thwaites, a handsome Australian who played the prince in “Maleficent,” gives no hint of on-screen mojo. His young co-stars don’t fare much better, playing their blandly polite characters with plenty of bland politeness. Even diva Taylor Swift’s appearance as a holographic memory offers more substance.

The film’s ending doesn’t stand up to the most casual scrutiny. Also troubling is why a society centered on pure technology relies on an Elder with mystical powers. That’s a rather mixed message, as if a communist country were governed by the pope.

‘THE GIVER’

2.5 stars

Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:37

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