Listen Up, Groupmates

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The Giver is a new film based on the popular young adult novel by Lois Lowry (1993) about a community in which choice and individuality have been eliminated in an attempt to eradicate unhappiness. The community is characterized by sameness; houses are all the same, husbands and wives are assigned to each other, and one boy child and one girl child are assigned to each family unit. Occupations are assigned for life by the community elders when children turn 12, thus eliminating the “agony” of deciding for oneself what career or avocation to pursue. Lowry has written over 30 books for young adults and has reaped numerous awards for them. She has a gift for evocative language and for creating characters and settings that draw the reader into her worlds. The Giver addresses important issues about choice and accountability, joy and despair, family and friendship, community and individuality.

To demonstrate the Otherness of herseemingly familiar, yet imaginary community, Lowry creates Orwellian terms such as “newchildren” for babies and “groupmates” for friends. Children are grouped by their birth years as Fours or Eights or Tens. When Elevens become Twelves, they are assigned their occupations at a community celebration also characterized by the “Release to Elsewhere” of the older members of the community. This hint of a glorious retirement is actually a euphemism for euthanasia. As the film opens, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is explaining in a voiceover narration what his community is like. “Differences aren’t allowed,” he tells the audience. “No popularity, no fame, no losers.”

The story is reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem(1938), in which the first-person singular pronoun has been outlawed, names have become numbers, children grow up in dormitories, and occupations are assigned for life. But The Giver immediately contradicts itself, because Jonas is riding bikes and joking happily with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) while other children can also be seen chatting happily in groups of twos or threes. Popularity might be frowned upon in this community, but unlike in Anthem, there doesn’t seem to be any tyrannical enforcement of the rules or atmosphere of oppression.

No history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation.

In the next scene, Jonas and Fiona are visiting Jonas’s father (Alexander Skarsgard) in the birthing center where he has been assigned as a nurturer. They compete jovially as they weigh two newborns to see which one’s baby is larger.Fiona’s weighs an ounce more than Jonas’s. Father says, “Thank goodness they aren’t identical! That makes this much easier,” as he takes the newchild who is an ounce lighter to be “released to elsewhere.” Oops! Loser. Evidently it pays to be stronger and heavier in this society of sameness. Similarly, in the assignment ceremony that follows, the elders assign Jonas and his groupmates (who are 16 in the film, not 12, as in the novel) to their occupations by reference to thetalents and differences they have exhibited, not by random selection to confirm their sameness. Fiona and Asher are delighted with their assignments as nurturer and drone pilot, respectively. Jonas is honored to discover that he will be a Receiver of Memories, the first Receiver to be discovered in many years. This is very different from the assignment ceremony of Anthem’s Equality 7-2521, who longs to be a Scholar but is assigned instead to be a street cleaner. I understand the point the film is trying to make about lack of choice, but these contradictions so early in the film are jarring and reduce the sense of drama or conflict.

The purpose of a Receiver is to retain all the memories of the past, including the emotions that accompanied them. In a way the Receiver is a Christ figure, taking upon himself the pains, but also the joys, of the world. Jonas is assigned to learn his role from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) who will now be the Giver. He transfers his memories to Jonas telepathically, and Jonas experiences the joy, pain, and wonder of activities that happened in a life without sameness. Only the Receiver has this knowledge; no history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation. Citizens are also given daily injections to prevent emotional highs or lows or any kind of passion. (One wonders why the elders would want a Receiver to remember the history that they deem dangerous, and I think it would have made more sense if The Giver had been an outcast hiding in the woods, waiting for someone with “the gift” to help him restore freedom and choice. But that’s where we simply need to suspend our disbelief and go with the story.)

Director Phillip Noyce has strong visual instincts and uses color to good advantage. Much of The Giver is filmed in black and white to indicate the sameness in the community, with splashes of impressionistic color to indicate freedom of thought and full color for the memories the Giver shares with Jonas. A few allusions give the film added gravitas as well; for example, Jonas tells us in the beginning that they are “protected by the border” from what they perceive as the evils of the outside worlda reminiscence of Plato’s Cave. At another point Jonas gives Fiona an apple and tells her that using it in a certain way will allow her to gain knowledge and feel forbidden passion. He places it in her hand with great ceremony, rather like Eve urging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in order to experience the new knowledge and passion that she has discovered.

Through techniques such as these, The Giver tries very hard to be a great film. Its themes about the importance of choice and individuality are themselvesprofoundly important. Jeff Bridges was so impressed by the book that he purchased the movie rights shortly after it was published, expecting to film it with his father (Lloyd Bridges) as the Giver. Rumor has it that he and his family (brother Beau is also an actor) filmed a home movie version of the book in their garage several years ago. Bridges waited 20 years to make the commercial production, and parts of it are quite effective and well done. I enjoyed the novel, and wanted very much to love this film. But like so many works that are philosophically important, The Giver doesn’t translate well to film. Some books just need to remain as books.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Giver," directed by Phillip Noyce. As Is Productions, 2014, 97 minutes.



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Deist Dystopia

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Yet another film about earth's dystopian future hit the theaters this week, with at least two slated for later this summer. We humans seem to need some scolding about our profligate ways, and Hollywood, that bastion of restraint, is just the town to let us have it.

In After Earth, humans have again evacuated from earth to a distant location in space after destroying the home planet by pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear war. It is now a thousand years later, and "everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans." (Although one has to wonder how this evolution occurred, considering that no humans remained behind to contribute to the natural selection process . . .)

On the new planet, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is a young cadet who wants to become a brave and respected ranger like his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith). But mostly Kitai just wants to be accepted by his father, who seems distant, cold, and demanding, more like a commander than a father.

When Cypher is called up for a mission, he decides to bring Kitai along. The ship is damaged in a magnetic storm and crash lands on — you guessed it — earth, where all those animal predators have evolved to kill humans. Strapped in during the crash, Kitai is unhurt, but Cypher's legs are both badly broken, and the other crew members are dead. The only hope of survival is to retrieve the emergency beacon from the wreckage of the tail, 100 kilometers away. Kitai must make the journey by himself, through unfamiliar land where predators have evolved . . . well, you get the picture.

For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving.

The predators are attracted to humans through the pheromones released by fear. No fear, no predators. Cypher encourages his son with the film's philosophical tag line: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." It's a powerful concept, and if there is only one takeaway from the film, it's a good one. "Fear is not real," Cypher explains. "Fear is a product of our thoughts of the future. We are all telling ourselves a story. Fear exists only in the imagination. Stay focused in the present, and there is nothing to fear." I kind of like this version that I found on Facebook today: "Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be."

Unfortunately, "fear is a choice" is about the only takeaway. For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy and an actor known for both his wisecracks and his ability to save planets, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving. Trapped by his broken legs, Cypher himself can't move. Instead of movement, we see his stoic reserve, his pain-induced wooziness, and his pensive flashbacks of family times at home.

Midway through, the film turns into a heavy-handed allegory. Before sending Kitai off into the lone and dreary wilderness, Cypher dresses him in a mechanized space suit equipped with a 360-degree camera and heat sensors. This gives Cypher a bird's eye view of Kitai's surroundings; Cypher can see everything in front of Kitai and behind him. Thus Cypher operates as an unseen, disembodied voice who guides Kitai from a position of omniscience. The boy must trust his father's voice and obey his commands in order to survive. At one point Kitai's receiver stops working. He can't hear his father's voice, but his father can still hear him. He thinks that his father is no longer watching him, but of course the father is there all along. The deist allegory is crystal clear, and rather satisfying if you like that sort of thing. I sort of do.

It makes even more sense when the credits roll and M. Night Shyamalan's name appears as director. Shyamalan is known for the spiritual themes that permeate his works, but also for the decline of his storytelling technique. He is best known for his stellar freshman work, The Sixth Sense, which is possibly the best ghost story ever made, and Bruce Willis' best and most serious acting job. Shyamalan was a shining star back then, but his star his dimmed to a nightlight now. In fact, the trailers for this film didn’t even include his name. Nor did it appear in the opening credits. The name that used to fill theaters is now considered box-office poison, I guess.

Allegory or not, the film remains heavily antihuman. Even after 1,000 years without people, the earth has not managed to stabilize. In fact, climate change has deepened. Temperatures drop well below freezing at night but soar into the tropical zone during the day. Oddly, broadleafed trees and warmblooded bison have no trouble thriving in these extreme temperatures.

The original screenplay for this film was not set in the future, or even in space. Father and son were driving a lonely road when their car crashed and the father's legs were broken. The young son had to hike through the forest on his own to find help and save his father's life. Will Smith decided that the film would be much more exciting if it were a sci-fi story set in space, with scary aliens and cool equipment. But I'm not so sure they made the right decision.

Father trapped in a car? Sending young son out into the woods alone? In this day and age? Now there's a scary story.

Danger is real. Fear is a choice. And even though movie danger isn't real at all, I think I would choose to be very fearful watching that scenario.


Editor's Note: "After Earth," directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Columbia Pictures, 2013, 89 minutes. (But it seems like two hours, at least.)



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