The Giver: Looking for utopia in a dystopian world

The world of Philip Noyce’s The Giver is very different from ours: it appears desaturated and grim, deprived of life-affirming colours; it consists of several sporadically blinking drones floating in the air, as if keeping a watch; in the centre of this habitat suspends a circular porch, supported by metallic arches. You can see the edges of this fantastical land, also called the “community”, but what not lies beyond it, for it’s engulfed on all sides by the perpetual, unending mist. This community is truly an alienated little alcove, far removed from the external, real world, if at all there exists one. We soon understand why this community came into being: to create “sameness”. Here, race and religion don’t exist; the only pervading feeling is the one of unity. We live in a world where our differences often become an excuse to be hostile to others. No one is really interested in what constitutes the other; so when The Giver creates a world where everyone is like the other, it becomes something that immediately grabs you: would a world without differences be a better world than what we have right now? Would a world without fear, envy, hatred be automatically a better world?

A little later into the film, we get to know that it’s also a world that’s deprived of basic human emotions: love, memory and empathy. What would you choose — an imperfect world where people have the capability to feel or a perfect world whose inhabitants are high-functioning automatons? The Giver’s protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a recent college graduate, has been chosen as the “receiver”. He’s sent off to meet The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the only person in the community who has the ability to retain things, so he can receive his memories. Years later, Jonas will act as The Giver and transmit these memories to another chosen receiver. As Jonas begins receiving The Giver’s memories, he comes across a bunch of images hitherto unknowing to him: a sled gliding on a stretch of snow; the orange sun about to melt into the sky; the fleeting images of a home. These scenes are a poignant exploration of loss like no other: can you lose something you never had? And if you think about it, these motifs are not just fanciful ruminations, but they also find their way into our “real” world. For instance, consider the children of today, whose childhoods are hijacked by shiny technological devices; would they know what have they lost by not spending their evenings playing in the park? A more severe example would be North Korea, a country whose denizens literally live in a parallel world.

The Giver ponders over these concerns without being edifying, and that’s a major achievement. In various bits, the film keeps asking us with a lot of empathy: what is the use of living in a world where we can’t feel anything? Our efforts to communicate or create art forms are not merely about sending words or images across; we exist to feel, and that could be anything: happiness, disappointment, disillusionment. The Giver understands what it is that makes us human. But there are also asides about what we have become. In the climax, The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who supports the vision of community, says, “When people had the freedom to choose, they chose wrong every single time.” The Giver excels in examining our triumphs and failures materialised through beautiful dialogues and gorgeous images; however, it falters in arriving at some sort of a conclusion because it’s difficult to tie heartfelt, little vignettes into a cohesive whole. And yet, The Giver strives to be like countless other films in its final dénouement, labouring towards its climax. It’s quite ironic that a film, which cogitates over the very meaning of being different, ends up conforming.

An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian. 

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