March 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a movie that threatened to turn me against it before I even saw it. It is not the flat of he movie that these feelings built up. It is a phenomenon that I am calling the Twilight Effect, it's where the fanatical fanbase build up crazy expectations and demonstrate irrational levels of devotion to this singular entity and all else be damned. I am sure you know what I am talking about. Seriously, though, this crazy laser beam like focus has never been something that sat well with me, there are too many films to experience to become that devoted to one.

In any case, my exposure to the Hunger Games phenomenon came not all that long ago. It was before I knew there was a movie being made. I had been hearing things about the ok and the fact that it was pretty good, so I bought it for my Kindle app. Then the movie buzz started cropping up and media comparisons to Twilight came up and I just put the book on thwack burner. Then I saw the trailer and it looked to me like a slick cleaned up take on Battle Royale, or a bigger budget version of The Condemned. There have been many similar tales told over the years. Still, there was positive buzz surrounding the movie and I must admit to being curious. And no, I have not yet read he books, although I do plan to.

To get this out of the way up front, The Hunger Games feels like a mash up of The Running Man and Battle Royale for the Twilight crowd. That is exactly what it feels like on the surface, but to accept it just as that would be to sell the movie short. Sure, it recycles some ideas that we have seen before, but the execution is generally solid, performances are fun, and it creates an interesting universe that may be well worth exploring in future films (directly related to the other books or not). Now, I do not think that this is a great film, it is still a very good one that may even be more interesting than you'd think it should be.

The world of The Hunger Games is some manner of dystopian future. The United States no longer exists, in its place is a series of districts in the support of one major central city. These districts each have a primary goal, for example District 12 (where our heroine is from) appears to be primarily a mining community. Now, the Hunger Games themselves were created following an uprising of the districts, which was apparently quelled by the ruling government, to remind everyone of the past.

This round of games sees Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteer as on of District 12's Tributes (as those selected to compete are called). We follow her as she is transported to the Capitol City where all of the Tributes are prepared and ranked for battle. Everything is big and grandiose, the Games are a show, after all, complete with a flamboyant host and interviewer, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci playing a roll much like Richard Dawson in The Running Man).

All of the Tributes receive some training on survival techniques and how to impress viewers to garner support. Helping Katniss is a previous game winner played by Woody Harrelson and a fashion (I guess) expert played by Lenny Kravitz). This helps us get a better understanding of what is about to happen, but the centerpiece of the film is the game itself. 24 participants dumped into an open field with a pile of weapons and survival gear piled in the middle.

A mad dash for gear is followed by a good deal of the teens being killed and the rest fleeing for the safety of the forest. Katniss and the other survivors scope out hiding places, tracking paths, and other necessities of staying alive. We meet a number of the contestants and witness a lot of death on our way to the conclusion. It is relatively predictable but still rather exciting and better experienced than being poorly described by yours truly.

It is rather pulpy material to be sure, but it does carry some weight in its narrative. It is my understanding that author Suzanne Collins had intended this book to be something of a wake up call for young people who do not necessarily pay attention to the government or politics. A way of giving you ideas that may actually cause you to look at the world differently. I can definitely see that in the film. Granted, it is secondary to the more visceral and personal elements of young people being forced to kill each other for sport and the strong personalities displayed by many of the participants. In some ways it could be equated with Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, a young adult novel with subversive intent, which also seems to want to wake youth up to the actions of government and those that hold the power. Interesting how these things have a habit of recycling themselves in new forms.

In all seriousness, the real truth of the movie lies in a brief scene with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the games master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) where the discuss the role of fear and hope among the people. It is a telling scene revealing how those in power feel about those in the districts. It plays into the subversive, wake up call aspect that Collins was apparently going for.

As for the execution of the movie itself, it looks pretty good. Director Gary Ross acquits himself well behind the camera. There is both an epic and an intimate quality to the film that makes me want to know more about the world and also the characters. Yes, sounds a bit lame, but you will see what I mean. While the movie is shot well, it is not without its annoyances. There is a lot shaky cam and not the good kind. It feels like they were just shaking for the sake of it and not as a result of the action or any reasonable stylistic choice. It could tie in to what I see as compromises made to get a PG-13 rating. There were a lot of cuts away from action and shakiness to obscure bloodshed. Still, it was overall well shot and looked good.

The writing as decent. My biggest problem with the screenplay is that I do not feel it set the world up all that well. I could infer a lot, but I just feel it could have been set up a bit better, perhaps some more world  explanation built into the screenplay. It is a minor nit in the big picture as I think it pretty much accomplishes what it set out to do.

Performances are solid and run the gamut from serious to the overtly goofy. This is, at its core, entertainment and the performances reflect that. There is no real award quality work here, but they will keep your attention. Jennifer Lawrence is solid as the heart and soul of the film while Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks provide some of the comedy. Wes Bentley is groomed well as the bad guy and Donald Sutherland brings much credibility as the man holding the power. Lots of familiar faces and and everyone is game for the material.

In the end, The Hunger Games is a better than average movie that gets points for creating an interesting world with plenty of potential. I like the movie it is quality fare that has a lot of people interested in it. I was glad to find it to be worth the ride and would be interested to see a franchise develop.



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