Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Hunger Games Movie Review

I like futuristic dystopia stories for what they suggest about humanity at present and where we are ultimately headed if we continue down certain paths. But I generally like the vision to make some sense. I don’t necessarily demand a lot of back story and exposition to explain how the future became such as it is, but I would like it to make some sense according to what I know of the world today. Even when our real life timeline inevitably reaches the fictional year of some such movie or story and it turns out the vision hasn’t really panned out, in the best ones we can find some parallels and maybe say, “Well, it’s not 100 percent accurate but I can still see it as a possibility.” The year 2001 came and went and although we have yet to develop the capabilities to forge deep space travel as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we have been to the moon since the film’s 1968 release and humanity has explored (via unmanned probes) the far reaches of our solar system. Blade Runner presents a vision of Los Angeles in 2019 that is not close to coming to fruition, but still looks like a possibility in some more distant future.


I could go on of course, but I want to talk about The Hunger Games, the behemoth of a Hollywood blockbuster based on the bestselling novel by Suzanne Collins. Set in some far off future North America after some unnamed apocalypse has devastated the country (and perhaps the world) and after a rebellion against whatever government was formed in the aftermath of disaster, the land is divided into 12 districts, each apparently contributing some necessary resource to the good of the country as a whole. The districts are controlled from a centralized Capitol where wealthy people enjoy fine foods and flashy clothes and hairstyles. Under the leadership of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, looking like a malevolent Santa Claus) they oppress the people of the surrounding districts and keep them under control annually through the eponymous contest in which one boy and one girl aged 12 – 18 from each of the districts is randomly selected to compete in an outdoor wilderness arena to the death. The lone victor will then go on to enjoy riches and fame.

What got me thinking about other future dystopia stories that make more sense was this idea of outlying districts that remain under centralized control. Why hasn’t an uprising happened already? How the authorities maintain such brutal hegemony over them without a constant presence? Wouldn’t the requirement to submit two children a year to almost certain death be enough to foment revolt? And how the hell does each district come to be responsible for a single resource? That just doesn’t make any sense at all. These are districts defined geographically. This is supposed to be North America. It simply wouldn’t be the case that coal would be the predominant resource throughout a single district while another would have lots of timber. There would be overlap and it would make no economic sense to structure your country this way. So the entire setting defies credulity in really crucial ways.

The whole setup is like a strange amalgam of The Running Man and The Truman Show. It’s a bunch of competitors thrown into a giant arena for a fight to the death. There are hidden cameras virtually everywhere (a competitor can’t even sleep high in a tree without being caught by a camera) broadcasting the whole thing for the general population who watch dutifully and intently. Wouldn’t there be long stretches of nothing much happening that would make for incredibly boring television? And come to think of it, how do you broadcast the actions of 24 individuals simultaneously?

Our heroine is District 12’s Katniss Everdine (played by the wonderfully down-to-earth Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers for the Games to go in her younger sister’s stead. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the boy from her district. In an interview conducted by the Games’ emcee, Caesar Flickerman (whose name calls to mind both the Roman Empire which held Coliseum games that serve as inspiration and the broadcast nature of the Games as a means of control), Peeta reveals that he’s got a strong crush on his female counterpart. The question is whether or not his feelings are true or not. Peeta and Katniss have both been coached by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games victor. He tells Katniss to do whatever it takes to curry favor with potential sponsors who have the power to send aid packages to contestants in the arena. Is Peeta trying to build sympathy or is he being honest? It seems he is except that he strikes up a quick alliance with the four most likely winners of the Games, promising them he’ll help lead them to Katniss, who with her bow skills is one of the deadliest threats in the competition.

Anyone who has read the book prior to seeing the film will know all this ahead of time. Fans of Collins’ novel I suppose are looking to see how Hollywood interprets what they have already imagined for themselves while reading (it turns out the racists among the fans are disappointed to learn that characters described in the book as having dark skin were cast with black actors). For those unfamiliar with the source material, as I continually maintain, the movie has to create a story that makes sense without resorting to what you know from the book. This has been one of my biggest criticisms of the Harry Potter films, especially the last four. But to the film’s credit I have to say that The Hunger Games, adapted by Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross, never left me entirely confused or wanting for information.

In a story that could be read as an allegory for the trials and tribulations of merely being a teenager, the screenplay dodges several great opportunities for nuanced character study. Peeta’s declaration of love for Katniss would have been much more interesting to me if it had been shrouded in shades of gray. The same is true of Katniss’s acceptance and reciprocation of that love. SPOILERS: Katniss the strong-willed independent girl from the beginning of the film comes out the other end of the competition a little too quick to accept the Capitol’s propaganda spin. They miss an opportunity in the story to have her grapple with her core values and simplify it to an apparent love story.

Surprisingly, the script takes the time to inform us that a significant number of contestants will not die at the hands of another, but from exposure to the elements, disease, infection, cold, etc. However, the competition opens with all 24 contestants squaring off in a melee in which they try to scrounge supplies before getting killed. In the first day of the competition, half are dead. The entire thing only lasts a couple of weeks and most of the others who die are killed at the hands of another person. It’s hard to believe that natural causes could account for so many deaths (according to the exposition provided early in the film) with only two weeks of exposure. It seems this fact is pointed out only to emphasize the need for Katniss to find water and shelter. But then what’s the point if everyone dies in combat?

The one truly interesting relationship in the story is between Katniss and the young Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a 12 year old competitor from another district. Rue saves Katniss’s life and nurses her back to health and the two form a bond with Rue as the obvious surrogate for Katniss’s sister. But just as we’re beginning to know something about Rue, she’s killed. Obviously, the nature of the competition is such that characters are going to die quickly, but this relationship is meant to be a central turning point in the story and generate a big emotional climax. Whether the fault is in the source material or not I can’t rightly say, but something in the film is seriously lacking when Rue is there and gone in a flash.

Gary Ross had quite a promising start to his career, penning really interesting fantasy-based screenplays that feel like real life (Big, Dave, and Pleasantville), but as a director he is awkward and obvious. His overuse of the handheld shaky cam creates confusion where there needs to be stability. Most of the time this technique is employed it feels like artifice, calling attention to itself. Is there really a need for it during basic crowd scenes that involve only two speaking roles? His direction of the action sequences is no better, following the methods used by other contemporary action directors in putting the camera in close to cover up the fact that they didn’t bother to choreograph decent fights.

Although the movie never grabbed me emotionally, I was mostly sold on the whole idea and most of the story right up until the completely preposterous, totally inexplicable moment when Seneca, the Games Master played by Wes Bentley wearing a sinister and bizarrely sculpted beard, is able to conjure wild beasts to set upon the contestants. First we see this beast as a 3D graphic hologram in the control room and then suddenly it exists in the arena. I was asking myself if the creature was real or some kind of computer program that can actually kill. Then in the middle of a chase, the controllers merely push a button and suddenly several more appeared in the arena. This was a moment that just made absolutely no sense and the movie just lost me. Thankfully at that point there was only about 15 minutes left. Unfortunately it left me so baffled that it kind of spoiled most of the experience for me.

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