For how many years has Hollywood endured the YA novel onslaught? Five? Ten? When was Twilight? It’s strange to think of The Giver as merely the latest in a string of adapted young adult fiction given that its source material, Lois Lowry’s 1993 bestseller, precedes the publication dates of Divergent, City of Bones, and the Twilight saga. Like most of its cinematic contemporaries, The Giver squeezes its story into an angsty, dull, and poorly acted template, sapping any chance of inspiration out of its low-key science fiction concept.
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Having not read Lowry’s novel, I can only presume she uses her social structure — a utopian future in which emotions are outlawed — to latch “forbidden” teen angst and romance onto the awkward feelings puberty brings with it. On the verge of graduation, three teenagers join the adult ranks of The Community, envisioned here as a Levittown straight out of Starship Troopers, where each young adult is assigned a permanent role to fulfill until their golden years. (The Community’s septuagenarians are whisked away to spend their remaining years in Elsewhere, a “place” one can only get to with the prick of a hypodermic needle.) Rebellious Asher (Cameron Monaghan) joins the Community’s security forces as a drone pilot while Fiona (Odeya Rush) is sent to care for newborns at the infirmary. As we’re told by Meryl Streep’s steely Chief Elder however, Brenton Thwaites’ Jonas is an exception. His unique combination of personality traits qualifies him to succeed as the Community’s “Receiver,” a lone individual tasked with studying and preserving human history and emotion and to advise the Community Elders on crucial decisions.
A trio of limp young actors and a deadened script, co-written by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Robert B. Weide, sap any conflict or (ironically) pathos from the picture, even as Jonas leads The Community to an emotional reawakening. Which is where Marco Beltrami comes in. The Giver’s opening titles shimmer with a ghostly children’s choir and predominant strings as they glide into a series of wavy figures, figures that move into what can best be described as montage music. Think of Hans Zimmer’s worst tendencies in recent years and then imagine him as an optimist.
Like the obvious black and white stylization The Giver gradually moves away from, its main titles feel like reminiscence, though more cost-effective than Thwaites’ nostalgia-deadened narration, and Beltrami comes to lean on his primary theme throughout. “Tray Ride,” which refers to exactly what you think it does, suppresses the whimsy with lower register strings and solo cello that never overstays its welcome. Compared to its root track, “Tray Ride’s” progression is far more compelling, tossing out ribald fluff for tones closer to happy Philip Glass. “Color” follows a similar upward trajectory with a buoyancy earned from its piano and flute. If “Main Titles” leads to nowhere, “Color” is a logical conclusion of its destination, as the track dissolves into the breathy atmospherics behind it.
Elsewhere (not that one), heavier tracks draw from a tension and dourness that isn’t present outside of Beltrami’s work. Try as director Philip Noyce might, Jeff Bridges’ titular Giver is never anything but a curmudgeon with a heart o’ gold, even when Bridges is doing his best to mask the character by drawing from the Rooster Cogburn Well. “Arriving at the Giver’s” looks for ambiguity with distressed vocal elements and shrill woodwinds but the resulting hesitation feels like cheap pretense when paired with Noyce’s direction. Maybe it’s because “The Dude” can’t be anything but a good guy at heart, but our intimidation of The Giver never exceeds our fascination with him.
Beltrami fully departs from lighter fare in tracks like “Happiness and Pain” where echoing drums, wood block and glockenspiel all mark time against those monotonous good vibes. “War” adds a harbinger bell to the mix while “Escape from the Nursery” doubles Beltrami’s toolkit with shrill affected electric guitar and a prominent brass section he employs like a train. Later, “Capturing Jonas” squelches this tuba-trumpet combination with reverberating screeches as the sonic locomotive grinds to a halt. “What is Love?” plays outside of Beltrami’s twin poles of “exuberance” and “indecision,” moving between moods with an undefined color palette. Shirking the tribal tattoo philosophizing behind its title, a wandering piano toys with darker dimensions and never resolves in an obvious way.
Much of what Beltrami turns in is more reminiscent of temp tracks or wisps of ideas, but if there’s a real criticism to The Giver it’s that the score’s gestures toward complexity reflect neither the film’s conceit nor execution. The only grey area here is the cheap filter Noyce employs. A main theme continually rises towards an nonexistent destination, higher and higher into its fluffy ether. To that end at least, it’s right on the money.