Review by Nate
At first blush “The Giver” seems like it could be just another science fiction/future-dystopian/Jennifer Lawrence vehicle. As a matter of fact, Jeff Bridges recently commented on how long it took to greenlight the movie, which raises the question of whether it would have been made at all if not for the success of “The Hunger Games”.
The movie opens with the main character Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) narrating plenty of unnecessary exposition. “From the ashes of the ruin,” he tells us, “a new society was built.” This allusion to some kind of cataclysm is never explained but we are supposed to infer that it was due to the age-old problem of man’s inhumanity to man. All these (indeterminate) years later, a new society has emerged that has eliminated war, competition, fear, and hate. It does so by establishing elaborate rules and requiring its citizens to take drugs in order to suppress emotions and forget the past.
We are introduced to Jonas and friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), as they are about to be appointed permanent roles by which they will fulfill their usefulness in society. Fiona is assigned the role of “Nurturer” and Asher is assigned the role of “Drone Operator”. Jonas, however, is appointed to be the mysterious “Receiver of Memory”. This means he must dress everyday like an Amish Han Solo and meet with “The Giver” (Jeff Bridges) who will import memories (literally) into Jonas in order to ensure that the community makes wise decisions; that is, in order to avoid Santayana’s famous axiom, someone must remember history in order to keep everyone from repeating it.
“The Giver” feels like a cross between “Equilibrium” and “Pleasantville”. Most of it is filmed in black and white and takes place in a futuristic Mayberry where everyone speaks like a Stepford wife. The decisions with regard to color in the film are pretty clever. In one sense the black and white motif can represent Jonas’ (and the community’s) original outlook of right and wrong; that is, everyone appears to be stuck in Kohlberg’s conventional level of morality where they obey societal norms unquestioningly. Once Jonas begins to see the past, he discovers that the community has gone entirely too far in the name of security and peace.
Although arriving to the big screen in the age of Suzanne Collins, “The Giver” appears to follow in the footsteps of Orwell and Huxley. Much of the film’s moral dilemmas speak to our current socio-political climate. The community that Jonas lives in is surveilled by a pervasive panopticon of sorts, ever present and ever watchful of its citizens. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) uses Orwellian doublespeak reminiscent of contemporary euphemisms (see “release” in place of “murder”). Also, the cold and detached way that the useless are treated rings familiar with regard to the current attitude towards abortion.
While there are several problems with the movie (which will be mentioned later), the most interesting aspect are these particular moral dilemmas. The rest of this review will discuss a couple of them as well as include specifics about the plot. So, for those who have not yet seen the film and do not wish to discover any spoilers, stop reading now.
As I mentioned earlier, the community takes drugs to suppress emotions and forget the past. It also enforces a rigid set of rules that reaches far into the lives of each and every person. This is all in place to ensure the perennial compliance of the entire community. The Chief Elder explains why: “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong every single time.” Thus the rationale is that, in order to avoid hate (which leads to violence and murder) freedom must be taken away.
On the face of it, this makes sense. For Augustine, human freedom is the reason for evil. In other words evil arises out of the misuse of our free will. The Fall in Genesis recounts the curse of Adam appearing out of his free choice to disobey God. It therefore follows that, if Adam was not free to choose, then he would not have disobeyed. Likewise, the community in “The Giver” has removed many freedoms in order to ensure that evil no longer exists. But there are a couple of problems here. The Chief Elder is wrong; not every decision people make is a bad one. Jesus said, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:11)! In other words, even evil people can make good choices sometimes. It is also quite a leap to remove choices altogether because people make bad decisions. God never took away Adam’s freedom; even in the face of His foreknowledge that Adam would choose to rebel. Also, if moral evil does not exist then neither does a number of virtuous actions. Grace, sacrifice, forgiveness, these are all attributes that often arise specifically because evil is in the world. So the solution to get rid of evil by eliminating emotions is heavy-handed (to say the least).
Jonas’ father is a “Nurturer” who works for the community nursery where babies are engineered and later assigned to parents based on their perceived usefulness. Jonas later learns that his community, including his father, is killing infants that are not born at a desired weight for development. Here the Orwellian term for killing an infant is “Release to Elsewhere”. Once Jonas discovers the truth, he sets out to stop the killing of these infants (especially one in particular: Gabriel).
The movie, therefore, is a conversation piece with regard to abortion. One of the popular arguments for abortion is that the fetus is not a person; and, if the fetus is not a person, then it has no rights and can be terminated. To take it a step further, if a fetus is not a person then there is no difference between the fetus’ being in or out of the womb when it is terminated. By the way, this is a justification for partial-birth abortion. We see this same attitude in “The Giver”. Babies are engineered to be physically healthy in the nursery. After they are “created” they are measured and weighed to determine if they meet the requirements to be assigned to parents in the community. If they do not meet those requirements the infants are deemed unhealthy and killed on the spot. Granted, the “Nurturers” (like Jonas’ father) don’t know any better since they are too drugged up and ignorant to understand what is happening. But, once Jonas awakens to new emotions and remembers humanity’s past, he realizes that the “Release to Elsewhere” is murder and must be stopped.
There were a couple of elements in the film that were either unexplained or didn’t make any sense at all (or both). For example, The Giver can pass on vivid memories of people, places, and events in humanity’s history by simply grabbing someone’s arms. But there is no explanation as to how he can do this in the first place. What are these powers? Is he telepathic? Even if he were, how could he be channeling other people’s memories (from history)? This is never explained. Also, the solution to everyone’s problem is for Jonas to cross an invisible line known as “The Boundary of Memory”. Once he walks across it a shockwave will move through the community instantaneously returning everyone’s memories of humanity’s past. Again, this is never explained. Is there a chip or something in Jonas’ body that sets off the shockwave? You know, come to think of it, no explanation is adequate for this ending. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Rating: 3 out of 5
“The Giver” sits somewhere between not too great and not too bad. It certainly hasn’t reinvented the sci-fi/dystopian wheel. If anything, the movie is a mesh between Brave New World and 1984 without as much thinking and reflection. Despite its various issues, it does lend itself to conversations about theodicy and abortion. So, in light of these considerations, I give the movie a 3 out of 5. “The Giver” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi/action violence.
N.P. Sala received his B.Sc. in Religion in 2013 and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Secondary English at University of Nevada Las Vegas. He is the creator of the Christian Apologetics blog A Clear Lens. Follow him on Twitter at @N8Sala.
 This review is on the movie, not the book.