Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sacrifice, Style And The Utter Pointlessness Of Writing A Review Of The Hunger Games

The Good: Well-developed world, The romantic issues work well for the story, Action-packed
The Bad: Little character development, The acting is not as impressive as the cast, Perspective made me actually care less.
The Basics: Opening a new trilogy of films based on a popular novel series, The Hunger Games makes the audience into the barbarians the film ought to be commenting on.

If there is anything I have learned from reviewing works in the cinematic rendition of the Twilight Saga (Breaking Dawn, Part 1 is reviewed here!), it is that there is an utterly pointless quality to being a movie reviewer who wants to enjoy a movie for what is before them. What I mean by that is simple; the vast majority of readers of reviews for the Harry Potter franchise, the next Star Trek film, the Twilight Saga and other books-turned-to-movies are not interested in how the movie actually is. They want to know how the film stacks up to the book they read and what was included, what was excised. More often than not, they want solely to nitpick the comparative aspects of the book versus the film, despite the fact that they have already purchased their midnight screening tickets for the first available public showing. But, pointless or not, this review is not that type of review for The Hunger Games. I have not read The Hunger Games, I knew nothing of the franchise before seeing the movie and I had absolutely no preconceived notions of the plot, characters, etc. So, this is a pure review of the film only of The Hunger Games. If you want to know anything about how this stacks up against the book, this is not the review for you. Moreover, if your response to anything in this review is “well, that was addressed in the book . . .” your griping will fall upon deaf ears; this review is only the movie, as experienced as a self-standing work.

All those disclaimers aside, The Hunger Games is good. Let me be clear about that; The Hunger Games, the movie, is good. It is not a great film on any of the important fronts of plot, character or acting, but it is good. In fact, as one who despises reality programming, I had pretty serious issues with how the film works against its own themes, but at the end of the film, I felt I had not wasted my time with The Hunger Games. This might not be the ringing endorsement fans want for the film, but the truth is, The Hunger Games teeters on the upper end of average movies without anything inherently superlative.

In simpler terms, one of the outstanding problems with The Hunger Games is that those who do not come to the movie with an established love of the characters are not likely to fall in love with Katniss Everdeen or Peeta Mellark. As the two fight for their lives, the idea that they are simply fighting for survival wears thin over the brutality of the bloodsport they are involved in. As one sitting and watching the movie with no initial attachment to any of the characters, the feeling I had while watching tributes get cut down was “they all came from somewhere.” In other words, while the initial conflict and characterization are designed to get the viewer to care exclusively about Katniss’s place in the story, all of the other (non-professional) tributes in the story had lives before they were suddenly fighting to survive, so there is actually little catharsis as Katniss’s competitors bite the dust. In other words, it is very hard to make a biting commentary on bloodsports when the director then tries to make the bloodsport addictive to watch. But I get ahead of myself.

For those unfamiliar, as I was, with the universe of The Hunger Games, this is a story set in a post-collapse world, blending technology and very base instincts. The Hunger Games takes just enough time to provide the necessary exposition to get the viewer into the world. It’s not like suddenly being dropped onto an alien planet a la Predators (reviewed here!) for the viewers or the characters. In the broken world of The Hunger Games, North America has collapsed and is now divided into twelve Districts, which are subjugated by the opulent and powerful Capitol. Once upon a time, there was a thirteenth District, but when they rebelled against the control of the Capitol, they were brutally crushed. As punishment and reminder of their place, once a year, the twelve Districts must now compete in the Hunger Games, a televised life-or-death competition that all youth much watch. In this fashion, the Capitol uses fear to maintain control over the Districts.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen years old and as a child between twelve and eighteen is compelled to participate in a lottery to participate in the Hunger Games for District 12, a poor mining District. For the 74th Annual Hunger Games, her twelve year-old sister, Primrose, is also eligible and when Primrose is selected by random lottery, Katniss steps up to take her place as the tribute for District 12. Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta, a baker’s son who has known Katniss for years despite not having illustrated his true feelings for her before now, travel to the Capitol. There, Cinna grooms Katniss on how to best train for the competition and to illicit support from sponsors so she has the supplies needed to survive. Put on show by the talk show host of the day, Katniss manages to endear herself to District 12’s only Hunger Games survivor, who begins to mentor her.

When the games begin, the bloodshed starts, but Katniss and Peeta easily survive the first round of slaughter. Using her outdoor survival skills and her archery abilities, Katniss fights to win over the audience (for sponsor donations) through alliances, rule changes and taking care of her wounded friend from District 12.

The Hunger Games starts out by creating a world and a situation that seems initially deplorable, but then it becomes they very thing it deplores. Unlike something like the reality-show parody American Dreamz (reviewed here!), where the film lampooned the culture of ignorance that fostered the rise of reality television, The Hunger Games degenerates into the thing that it was originally trying to comment on. President Snow and his government understand the value of fear, which is the framework around which the Hunger Games are built. That works fine. But after initially setting Katniss up as a potential spoiler to the system, The Hunger Games simply becomes the game. In other words, director Gary Ross uses action sequences, the soundtrack and the sense of movement to make the viewer feel afraid for Katniss and Peeta. So, instead of being a harsh commentary on the brutal society that uses the Hunger Games for control, Ross deputizes the audience to be thrilled for and root for Katniss.

This gives the movie a slightly erratic feeling. The best analogy I have would be to a Senate debate on a law over violence on television that adjourned so that the members of the Senate could start shooting at one another. After humanizing Katniss and showing how the media is manipulating her (and how she presumes Peeta is manipulating the potential sponsors), the film turns into a remarkably straightforward survival story. While the politics behind things like the changing rules are presented, the film focuses much more on the effect than on the message. So, the last half of the film, especially, is a brutal reality-style sporting event with carnage more than any sort of commentary on it.

On the character front, The Hunger Games is less than I would have wanted. Katniss is interesting enough and her initial sense of sacrifice is engaging. She seems calm and unnerved in the Capitol and the arena, though she does seem surprised when Peeta expresses his feelings for her. But just as Cinna has coached her on how to get sponsors and succeed during the Hunger Games, the sixteen year-old Katniss reaches the logical conclusion that Peeta has been so coached as well. Outside her family connection – which is what inspires her to make an alliance with opposing tribute Rue – and her initial characterization that makes her survival in the wild realistic (through her friendship with Gale, hunting illegally), Katniss has little that makes her distinctive or interesting to watch. We get it, she loves her family, so she is risking her life for them. But so are other (peripheral) characters and that’s pretty much built into the concept. Katniss does not truly grow or develop in The Hunger Games, instead, she simply becomes more confident with who she already was.

The burgeoning romance between Katniss and Peeta is played generally well in The Hunger Games. It is initially clear to the viewer, not Katniss, that Peeta has real affection for his peer. That becomes muddied as Peeta uses his own affection as a tool to attract sponsors, which confuses Katniss (and has the potential to confuse the viewers). Given the way that Katniss and Gale interact in their brief time together on screen, The Hunger Games (as a franchise) seems like it could be moving closer to an uncomfortable Twilight-style melodrama with a love triangle. But within The Hunger Games, romantic attraction is used as a tool and that makes Peeta a more interesting character than the average sidekick (which is essentially the niche he is in for much of the film).

The Hunger Games features an impressive seasoned cast and a notably young primary cast. While Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci have little more than cameos in The Hunger Games, their appearances are notable (and more than just for their make-up!). Woody Harrelson plays Abernathy well; with so many roles beneath his belt, it is rare to see a performance from him that still surprises me. But he played drunk and bitter very well. The surprise of the adult cast (for me) was Lenny Kravitz. Kravitz plays Cinna and there are moments in his scenes with Jennifer Lawrence that he seems downright fatherly, which is something I have never associated with Kravitz before.

Much of the movie comes down to the talents of Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta). Neither one left me impressed. Lawrence handles the action sequences very well, but is remarkably stiff at points when it seems her character is emoting. Similarly, Hutcherson’s Peeta did not engage me in a way that made me empathize with the boy. Hutcherson’s performance left the idea of Peeta’s love for Katniss very ambiguous. By Hutcherson’s performance, it was never clear how much was what Peeta felt and how much was the character’s attempt to manipulate the in-universe audience. While there are moments, especially early on, where he says the words with feeling, as the movie progresses, his performance starts to have the words, but not the body language, not the emotion, to back them up. At that point, his performance seems less declarative.

The effects in The Hunger Games are brutal and after a more cerebral training sequence, the volume of blood and ferocity of the actual games is enough to make you set your popcorn aside. Director Gary Ross does well with using the camera to keep the sense of tension and angst, though there are frenetic moments that seem more sloppy than stylized. For the most part, though, the effects are decent and serve their purpose.

Ultimately, though, The Hunger Games is an engaging action adventure film that tries hard to be smarter than it ultimately becomes. For those still reading for some sense of advice; avoid the crowds of fans, wait two weeks and catch The Hunger Games as a matinee.

For other films that focus on violent contests, please check out my reviews of:
Death Race
The Cabin In The Woods


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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