The Most Dangerous Game, Battle Royale, The Running Man, The Long Walk, Wipeout: pop culture is littered with sadistic contests where people are the prey. The Hunger Games, based on the first book in Suzanne Collins best-selling trilogy, is just the latest in a long line of dystopian sci-fi tales where the bored and rich elite use the lower class for sport.
Sadly, we're coming to the point where I can probably omit the "sci-fi" descriptor.
Since the premise of The Hunger Games isn't exactly what I'd call wildly original, the film's ultimate value depends on how intelligent, creative and well-executed it is. As such, the movie is a mixed bag but not without a heart, a soul and a brain.
Roll da trailah!!!
Presumably set in a time after a particularly nasty Mayan prediction has had its way with us, The Hunger Games posits a future ravaged by societal breakdown. North America, now called Panem, has fractured into twelve districts based on available resources and enforced production. The story begins in the poor coal-mining region of District Twelve, where a young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hones her bow-wielding skills in order to provide for her young sister Primrose (Willow Shields) and their nearly-catatonic mother (Paula Malcomson).
As a constant reminder of the dangers of past rebellion, the wealthy elite have decreed that one boy and one girl between the age of twelve to eighteen will be randomly chosen from each District to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. After her younger sister is selected for the competition, Katniss is forced to volunteer in her place. The local baker's son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) ends up being her male counterpart.
Even after days of intense training, nothing can prepare Katniss for the brutality exhibited by her rivals when the competition starts. During the first day of the Games, nearly half their numbers are slaughtered. Employing her wilderness survival skills, she manages to avoid confrontation and keep a semblance of her innocence intact. The balance of the film follows Kat as she forms tentative alliances, re-unites with Peeta and creatively battles back against overwhelming odds.
The first thing that struck while watching the film are the retro sensibilities of the costume, hair and make-up. For the longest time, producers have avoided such extreme designs, presumably because they feared comparisons to dated fare like Logan's Run or Barbarella. Here, the producers of The Hunger Games throw caution to the wind and give us some of the wildest conceptions seen on film in decades.
Normally I despise such things. The sci-fi films of the Sixties and Seventies tried to convince viewers that they were watching something SET IN THE FUTURE by giving us the equivalent of a Bob Mackie dance routine. Frankly, I never really bought into that; especially when you consider how little business suits have changed over the years. But there's something about these stylistic choice that makes subliminal sense in The Hunger Games.
The lower class, relegated to menial labor, look like Victorian factory workers. The mindless guards resemble a cross between the cops from Fahrenheit 451 and Dark Helmet's minions in Spaceballs. While on parade, the Tributes are dressed up like super-heroes. And I've always suspected that the 1% think of themselves as transcendent, otherworldly and regal, so it makes thematic sense to gussy them up like Karl Lagerfeld meets Willy Wonka.
I respect screenwriters Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for taking the time to develop the characters. By the time Katniss finds herself half-way up a tree and surrounded by homicidal rivals intent on killing her, the suspense is palpable. On the flip side, I'm really surprised that the writers don't give Kat more of a character arc. She's stalwart, idealistic and determined at the start of the film and, well...stalwart, idealistic and determined at the end. I'm also baffled that the film fails to explore the mindset of the upper class ghouls who revel in the Games, but I think it's safe to assume that this will be explored in future entries.
The performances really make the film. Having never read the original novels, I really can't address the "controversial" casting decisions. I will say that, as an outsider to the publishing phenomenon, most of the actors seem well-suited to the the spirit of the characters. Jennifer Lawrence in particular is youthful enough to seem vulnerable as Katniss but her presence is pure conviction. I couldn't detect a single misfire in her showing and the scene in which she stuns the sponsors with her William Tell impersonation is applause-worthy.
The character of Peeta doesn't inspire nearly as much sympathy and, as such, his flaws are fascinating to me. After entering the contest as an underdog, Peeta goes all emo after Kat scores better in the preliminaries but then awkwardly confesses his love for her on live television. Then, in the early goings of the competition his loyalties seem fleeting and, worst of all, flashbacks call into question his bravery and compassion. Taken together, all of these elements make for a pretty divisive character but at least there's some complexity at work.
Actor Josh Hutcherson has sort of a bland, "Disney Channel" quality about him that I find kind of innocuous. Maybe I have a bad taste in my mouth because he also played Robin William's obnoxious, hip-hop brat of a son in the spectacularly unfunny R.V. Despite my own prejudices, I really can't slight the kid's performance; Peeta is meant to be a bit of a milksop and Hutcherson delivers on this. I just don't think it was the intention of the producers that audience members such as myself were silently hoping that Kat would just snap and make his head look like a pincushion.
Kat's nominal stay-at-home love interest Gale Hawthorne is a bit of a non-entity, but I suspect that his character will also emerge in the sequel. At face value, Liam Hemsworth represents yet another uninspired choice but this seems to be a recurring theme amongst the younger cast. Youth in The Hunger Games is depicted as natural, corn-fed, square-jawed and well-groomed. This is stark contrast to the older rich folks who hide their decadence under layers of thick pancake makeup, bizarro hairdos and oddball outfits. Hawthone's performance is certainly more then adequate for what little is asked of him.
If someone went back to 1985 and told me that the wide-eyed rube behind the bar at Cheers would still have a relevant career in 2012 I would have laughed in their face. But Woody Harrelson did what I'd recommend to any actor to do after coming off of an iconic role: don't be afraid to take a pay cut, accept a lower billing or pick quirky, non-commercial character roles that go against type. It might be lean for a few years, but I guarantee that it'll pay off in the long run.
Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernarthy, winner of the 50'th Hunger Games and coach to the Tributes. He's introduced as a besotted, egotistical asshole who's behaviour is clearly symptomatic of tremendous damage. Not only is he likely suffering from PTSD, he's also been forced to spend the last fourteen years of his borrowed life ushering children into a meat grinder. Harrelson does a masterful job tempering the character's boorish and cynical qualities with an involuntary fondness for Kat.
Elizabeth Banks does a stupendous job as the truly reprehensible Effie Trinket. Although the unbridled glee she exhibits while selecting the Tributes seems disturbingly authentic, Banks makes sure that there's more to Effie then meets the incredulous eye. Whenever the kids neglect their "manners", her mini-meltdowns appear to reveal a deep inner fear. Beneath the Kool-Aid guzzling surface, Banks gives us the impression that Effie would be prone to a complete and total mental breakdown if someone were to point out just how rotten the entire system is.
The supporting cast is just as colorful. Sporting a shock of electric blue Amadeus hair, Stanley Tucci is great as the fraudulently flamboyant reality show host. Lenny Kravitz seems comfortably entrenched in the role of Kat's personal stylist Cinna. Donald Sutherland makes for an ice-cold Big Brother as President Coriolanus Snow. Finally, Wes Bentley is great as the Luciferian gamesmaster Seneca Crane. At the very least, the character's beard has surely trumped Mr. Spock's goatee as the EVILEST FACIAL HAIR IN POP CULTURE HISTORY.
The producers make some needless stylistic choices that really pissed me off. Director Gary Ross (who brought us Seabiscuit and Pleasantville fer Chrissakes) goes w-a-a-a-a-a-y over the top with the shaky-cam. Even before the first action beat, Ross had me reaching for the Dramamine with his hyper-zoom palsy-afflicted establishing shots. And then, just as soon as the first fight breaks out, Ross shoots the entire thing in hyper-close up and then chops the shit out of it.
I know we're not meant to revel in the visceral thrills of the violence and I can appreciate the film-makers trying to emphasize the unexpected chaos of the Games. I'm down with using these techniques to kick off the action, but I hate being deprived of the narrative told in every good fight sequence. Eventually I gave up trying to determine who was getting the upper hand and just waited for the dust to settle.
I'm getting really tired of directors taking the lazy way out by substituting a series of hyper-kinetic close-ups for a well-staged action scene. Look, I'm not asking for Drunken Master II levels of choreography here, I just want them to back the friggin' camera up so we can see what the fuck is going on!
It's a tender mercy that there's very little CGI used in the movie, since what we do get isn't particularly convincing. Computer generated city-scapes and the Tribute's chariot entrance look totally fraudulent when juxtaposed with the Orwellian glory of the lottery stage. Mercifully, the Games sequence is shot in all-natural surroundings, providing few excuses for digital fudgery. Also, I don't care how far into the future we are, someone has to explain to me how the game runners can summon packs of deadly creatures out of thin air just to screw with the combatants.
Trust me when I say this: The Hunger Games is pretty derivative. In fact, it's a virtual rip-off of Koushun Takami's novel Battle Royale, which was published back in 1999 and then committed to film in 2000. But there is one critical difference between the two: Takami's story was inspired by the older generation's inability to deal rationally with youth rebellion whereas The Hunger Games attacks the wealthy elite for regarding plebes as grist for their mill. The same vehicle is used to drive similar messages, but I think there's room on the road for both.
The Hunger Games may not win any awards for originality, be it's slickly made, competently filmed and well-acted. As such, I'm not opposed to watching future entries to see if the producers can expand their dystopian vision, deepen the thematic scope and justify my initial interest.