After a visit to the new Soviet Union in 1919, the great muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens famously remarked, "I have seen the future and it works." In Hollywood, for many years they have seen the future and ... it sucks. Dystopia now replaces any possibility of happiness in the brave new world that we'd like to think constitutes the destination of our dreams.
Although both literature and cinema for many years imagined a dismal future for its contemporary context -- the most important literary influences remain Aldous Huxley and George Orwell -- the film industry adopted the concept wholeheartedly in the 1980's, interestingly, during the presidency of Saint Ronald Reagan. In addition to the remake of "1984," movies like "The Terminator," the Mad Max trilogy, and "Escape from New York" created various versions of the time to come, all of them undesirable.
In "The Giver," the future, though clean, bright, and peaceful, remains a place that few should wish to inhabit. Filmed in stark black and white, with an intermittent narration from its young protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), the picture shows a community entirely at peace, governed by a rationality that excludes any strong emotion -- love, fear, hatred, anger, etc. -- and has banished crime, falsehood, conflict of any kind, a place where an oppressive politeness stifles differences or dissent. A sort of atheist's paradise patrolled by watchful drones, it allows for no hint of anything supernatural or irrational beyond the reasoned, placid surface of an ordered life, obliterating by daily injections faith, emotions, even dreams. The governing ideal is homogeneity, which means that the citizens dress alike, think alike, and dwell in clusters of the same sterile, streamlined structures like some futuristic parody of our familiar lily-white suburbs ...
At a ceremony marking the transition of Jonas and his friends from school to their assigned jobs in life, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) singles out Jonas for the special post of Receiver of Memory. He undergoes instruction from the Giver of Memory (Jeff Bridges), who introduces him to the past through books, which don't exist in the rest of his world, and through a telepathic process that enables Jonas to experience a human history nobody else knows; discovering the whole panoply of human emotions he never knew existed. He witnesses religious festivals all over the world, music and dancing, moments of love, and even horrifying scenes of death and destruction. Jonas's black and white world takes on the colors of ordinary reality and inevitably he learns how to subvert the processes that have previously imprisoned him in the bland bliss of his former life.
Learning the lessons of the Giver transforms Jonas in some predictable ways, turning him into a rebel and a traitor, driven to escape his ordered world into a future he cannot fully imagine. His perilous journey away from his community across something called the Boundary of Memory seems silly and preposterous, somewhat blunting the point of the genuine dystopian satire that enlivens much of the film. Its predictable conclusion suggests sequels, presumably based on the rest of the series of young adult novels by Lois Lowry, whose book inspired "The Giver."
Perhaps in tune with the boring perfection of their environment, almost none of the cast rises beyond a sort of functional blandness themselves. Looking like a high-class witch in a long blond fright wig, Meryl Streep conveys at least a hint of ambiguity in her arguments for a rational universe where everybody must conform to maintain peace and security. Bearded, clothed in attire different from the relentless whiteness of everybody else's costumes, Jeff Bridges on the other hand, provides a stark contrast to the oppressive sameness of the picture's world.
The picture demonstrates once again that the cinematic future allows only two possibilities, both of which owe a debt to Huxley and Orwell. One is the squalid, violent, dangerous world of "Soylent Green," "The Terminator," "The Road Warrior," and their ilk; the other is the smooth, featureless, streamlined wonderland of "2001," any of the "Star Trek" franchise, and even most of the later "Star Wars" movies. In one there is no peace or comfort, in the other no texture, no affect, no unorthodoxy, a dismal choice indeed.