Is it too late? The Weinstein Co. took over a half-full Hall H to promote the latest young adult dystopian fantasy "The Giver." It's been a long time coming to the screen, as 19 years ago producer-star Jeff Bridges originally intended to make a family film featuring his father Lloyd as the title character that he wound up playing himself--that is not dissimilar to the eminence grise role he played in "Tron" sequel "Legacy." "I'm so glad that Weinstein and Walden got the courage to put it out," Bridges told Hall H.
What took so long? Well, the film world was not ready for the controversial novel published in 1983, which inspired and fed later dystopian fiction, including the "Hunger Games" and "Divergent" series. Ironically, their success smoothed the way for their progenitor to get made. (It opens in theaters August 15.)
While Lois Lowry's provocative Newbery-winning book has been a staple in schools and libraries since it was published--and thus has legions of fans-- unfortunately a wider audience may see the marketing materials as too familiar at this point. "I call her the birth mother of this genre of literature that is out there right now," said producer Nikki Silver. "In everything there's always luck and timing. With Jeff's continual persistence, it's been quite a journey. There became an appetite for this whole genre of dystopian fiction with action. The timing was right."
Unfortunately this film may be too late to the party. Word is YA publishers have already moved on from dystopian fiction. While Edgar Rice Burrough's original "Princess of Mars" 100 years ago and subsequent Martian novels fed legions of later fiction from "Star Wars" to "Avatar," by the time "John Carter" arrived in 2012, audiences saw something too familiar and stayed away. And while the original "Tron" was ahead of its time back in 1982--one of the first movies to use computer-graphics, inspiring many films to come--by 2010, even with fancy ultra-VFX, sequel "Tron: Legacy" fell behind its predecessors.
"The Giver" footage shown in Hall H (accompanied by OneRepublic's "Ordinary Human") reveals a handsomely mounted production directed by Australian Phil Noyce (who stayed in New York to finish the film) that starts out in black-and white and slowly bleeds to color (see "Hunger Games" director Gary Ross's "Pleasantville") as our young lead (Australian "Maleficent" star Brenton Thwaites) is chosen to receive knowledge from the grizzled The Giver (Bridges).
Jonas narrates the film, saying that "after the ruin we started over," establishing rules that became "the building blocks of equality." The community wear assigned clothing, take their prescribed medication and have no differences: "there's no popular, no fame, no losers, no winners, no fear, no envy, no hate." (It sounds like a model progressive school.)
In a scene familiar from "Ender's Game," "Harry Potter," "Divergent" and "Hunger Games," Meryl Streep's Chief Elder presides over a ceremony assigning young graduates positions in the community: "Number 52 has all four attributes: intelligence, integrity, courage, and the capacity to see beyond," she says. "Jonas, you have been selected as our next receiver of memory."
When Jonas visits The Giver, he tells the boy: "You will learn the secret history of the world, generations back and back." He touches his hands, saying, "there is no way for me to prepare you for what I am going to do now." The Giver tells Jonas, "there's something in you that you can't see with your eyes, deep inside you, that the morning injections take away...I have been waiting for someone like you, you are the reason we have a chance...You can change things, you can make things better."
So Jonas becomes a revolutionary (see Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451") who tries to show his drugged, ignorant, conformist and complacent community what they are missing in the grander scheme of things. In this community, the young and the old are euthanized, routinely. The Giver shows Jonas his father (Alexander Skarsgaard), who cares for babies, killing an infant. Jonas realizes, "If you can't feel, what is the point?"
The movie emphasizes the battle over the community's future between the spiritual Giver and the political Chief Elder, who states: "When people have the freedom to choose they choose wrong." Of Jonas: "He is a rebel and must be stopped." While her beefed-up role is reminiscent of other recent nasty women leaders (see Jodie Foster in "Elysium" and Kate Winslet in "Divergent"), Lowry admitted that she admired Streep's contributions. Streep and Bridges know each other socially, but this is their first time working together.
The ultimate success of "The Giver" depends not only on how well the movie executes Lowry's excellent DNA, but on how well TWC can make the picture look different from all the similar movies that precede it.