Friday, September 05, 2014

The Giver (Philip Noyce, 2014)

The young and the dutiful

At first glance, Philip Noyce's The Giver is a headscratcher. You wonder: what makes the director of Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Quiet American a natural to direct a Young Adult classic by Lois Lowry? Nothing, at first glance.

Nothing at second glance, either. It's tempting to write this one off as yet another hired-gun assignment and not his first either (remember Sliver?), something to raise Noyce's profile in Hollywood till he can attract enough funding to do something significant, another Rabbit Proof Fence, say. Though I don't know if this will do much raising--the film has been lambasted by most mainstream critics, and has had a soft opening weekend. Usually loathe to discuss box-office, but that domestic market figure might be especially problematic, as the book is far as I know known mainly in the United States; I doubt if it'll find a better market overseas. Problematic with critics, problematic with audiences (the main complaint: it's not faithful to the novel); that is one considerable conundrum.

There's just one thing wrong with the scenario: the film itself is pretty good. Oh, certainly not Noyce's best work, and the film certainly doesn't avoid all the pitfalls of a Hollywoodized adaptation of a young-adult 'classic'...but if you move past the noise of other film critics yapping in lockstep about the awfulness of this production, how Lowry's book was turned into a travesty, you just might realize that it's perhaps the best of the recent young-adult pictures--at the very least the most thoughtful, and most well thought-out. 

It helps having a filmmaker at the helm, as opposed to a former music-video director, or (worse) writer-turned-director. It helps that Noyce, who cut his teeth shooting the bleak Australian landscape, should find beauty in the Community's sparely hypermanicured black-and-white gardens with their Louis Khan triangular-prism fountain, not to mention the memorably minimalist Patrick McGoohan pedal bikes. 

Andrew O'Hehir in his Salon article ably picks apart this future, noting that Lowry, in eliminating the pleasure principle through largely pharmaceutical means, eliminates the most powerful impulses that can possibly help keep this flawed utopia stable--sex, emotions, memories, so forth. I submit that Noyce partially answers the charge by presenting this precisely controlled utopia, this serenely uneventful perfection, as a rather seductively realized alternative to the usual YA dystopia (actually it's a precursor to the rest). Yes, I'm tempted to give up all my experiences and feelings, if only I can ride those wonderfully improbable bikes.

While Lowry makes reference to her various sources--Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451--Noyce makes a few references of his own: the snowbound sled from Citizen Kane (memory of that sled is key to the film--to both films); the musty library from Zardoz; the hovering surveillance cameras a la his own Patriot Games. I've already mentioned McGoohan's bike (the Community with its people full of false  bonhomie, look unnervingly like an update of The Village, the drones a more technologically specific (though not necessarily more menacing) version of the amorphous Rover).

It's all slightly loony, in its own modestly scaled way. There's something retro, refreshing almost, about a dysfunctional utopia (A dystopia disguised as its opposite? A utopia irreparably fractured?) where the hero doesn't feel the need for armed revolution, where big explosions and high-tech arrows and semiautomatic weaponry aren't considered the ultimate solution. Noyce does stage an effective little chase sequence where flying drones (an I assume nod to the United States' present military capabilities) pursue our ostensible hero, but that's a comparably minor compromise in an otherwise remarkably understated film (not as happy about the ending, which Lowry in her novel had left more ambiguous).

The cast has been aged to cater to the more desirable demographic, and to emphasize the romance angle for better boxoffice (Ha!). One of the producers (Jeff Bridges) has granted himself the key role of The Giver, rarely a good move--only Bridges, always the thoughtful maverick, always charismatic with minimum effort, effortlessly moves across the toweringly dusty bookshelves to assume center stage: not just as repository of the Community's memories, but as the film's quietly beating heart.   

What really wins me over though is Noyce's way of staging the film's key transition: the shift in viewpoint, the epiphanic moment so crucial in proper science fiction when the protagonist (Jonas, played by Brenton Thwaites) realizes the disconnect between what he perceived was reality and what is reality. The film begins in severe black and white, and as Jonas receives The Giver's memories he is shocked with a flood of full-color images: of men and women in a rainbow of skin hues, laughing, playing; of a vast world spinning about him, all red earth and deep blue sky and even deeper sea; of the terror of violence (hunters firing into an elephant's head), the horror of war (a soldier in Vietnam, witnessing his friend's death). Noyce edits this the way he did Newsfront (about the Australian newsreel cameramen of the late '40s and '50s, Noyce's first--and possibly best--great film), and all the passion and emotion in the images pour over you in a biblical deluge. This is filmmaking, a startling thing to see in a standard-issue Hollywood adaptation of a standard-issue young-adult book. It makes you realize exactly what these clueless youths--and all the listless YA movie adaptations--were missing all along. 

First published in Businessworld 8.28.14

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