Theatrical Review: The Hunger Games

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have gone to see this movie.  I really had no familiarity with the source material at all other than knowing the basic premise, which seemed to me to borrow liberally from a great Japanese movie (and book and manga) called Battle Royale.  Honestly, that was all that I knew about this other than the fact that it was big with a younger audience… that should’ve also been a tip off.

It’s a non-distinct time in the future.  A dystopian society has surfaced after an apparent uprising between the Haves and the Have-Nots (obviously written during the Bush administration, heaven forbid this could’ve ever been written during the Obama administration) across 12 different districts.  Now the Haves keep the Have-Nots at bay with their force of peacekeepers, but they also give them a little bit of hope in the form of entertainment known as The Hunger Games.  In The Hunger Games, a boy and a girl from each district (aged between 12 and 18) is chosen to engage in mortal combat against the other districts.  24 combatants enter the 2-week long game, but only one will survive, but to that one, fame and riches.

We’re now in District 12 and introduced to the sisters Katniss and Primrose Everdeen.  Primrose is set to be entered into the Hunger Games drawing for the very first time, and of course, her name is drawn to represent District 12.  Katniss, doesn’t stand for it at all, and says she’ll be the first actual volunteer for the games if they’ll let Primrose go free.  And of course, that’s what happens.  On the boy’s side, a young man named Peeta, who has an attraction to Katniss (much to the chagrin of another young man named Gale) is chosen and the two embark on the journey to participate in the Hunger Games.  Happy Hunger Games everybody!

I think the biggest problem that I have with The Hunger Games is just that it’s way too long, boring and just takes itself way too seriously.  Director Gary Ross has previously made films like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville (I actually enjoy Seabiscuit a great deal).  They’re directed in a somewhat safe style and it looks to me like he’s trying to be a bit “edgy” here by using lots of hand-held camera work and quick cuts, with the occasional break to let you bask in the production design.  This needed a real visual punch that, in my opinion, Ross doesn’t have (as much crap as he gets, a Paul W.S. Anderson could’ve really directed the hell out of this).

From what I understand, this is a very faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ original book, and for fans of that, they’ll probably be in total heaven with this (and if our audience was any indication, it was just me and the friends I saw this with that had problems with this, but then we’re all white males near 50 or in our 50s as well).  The film’s vision of the future just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  It’s societal breakdown is told in just the simplest of strokes and it’s technology aspects and rules of the game are amorphous, with changes being made simply to advance it’s plot more than anything else.  For example, the games themselves take place in an ill-defined “arena” which is all controlled from a central source that can literally create life when it needs to (talking about the terrible CGI “dogs” seen at the very end).  The rules of the game are abruptly changed twice just to advance the “relationship” between Peeta and Katniss (these names are just soooo precious).  With the second climactic change of the rules, I just literally laughed out loud when it happened… it was just so safe.

I mentioned Battle Royale above and one of the great things that has going for it is it’s variety of characters that aren’t at all what they might appear on their surface.  Now sure, in the end, they might still be considered two-dimensional but that’s still one dimension more than most of the characters of The Hunger Games have.  Katniss Everdeen is the idealized nurturing female protagonist with no real faults at all and no real depth.  She’s told from the start the she has to win The Hunger Games and of course she does, but does it in such a way in which there’s no real blood on her hands.  The only real change for her is in the relationship that develops with Peeta, that just sort of comes to us as a matter of plot convenience.  I mean heaven forbid that she should remember that Peeta at the start of the games hooked up with a bunch of rivals in order to take Katniss specifically down.  Now to be fair, if you see a Die Hard movie with Bruce Willis, you’re sure to see Willis’ John McClane triumph in the end, that will happen, but at least the ride is fun and interesting with lots of great action and some snappy dialogue and one-liners that make it even more entertaining.  That type of movie still manages to build some suspense and there’s really no suspense at all in The Hunger Games.

The production design is… interesting.  It’s sort of like taking the great Ken Adam (who designed so many Bond films) and had him working with Lady GaGa and the Bravo Network at the same time.  There’s aspects to it that I think are quite cool (the control room for instance) and others that’s just perplexing.  I mean really, conservative “Haves” who will dress up in sparkly colors and have the hair colored blue and all bunned up in the future?  Yeah, I sorta find that one hard to buy.

And then there’s it’s whole social commentary, which is simplistic as is it’s cultural commentary.  I’ve read that this is supposed to be a big statement against reality TV shows and it just plays likes it’s written by a writer that just resents the concept of these shows more than one who’s done some actual digging into them.  Reality TV competitions are here to stay just as much as Young Adult genre fiction who’s fans thinks it’s far superior to anything else that’s ever been written before.

Performances… well I really can’t fault Jennifer Lawrence for what she does as Katniss.  She’s doing everything that’s asked of her, I just don’t think it’s asking much. The same can be said with the rest of the young cast as well.  The bright spot for me is in the character of Haymitch played by Woody Harrelson, a former winner of the Hunger Games, and Cinna played by Lenny Kravitz, the stylist for Katniss.  Both of these guys at least give the impression of more depth and have a bit more “lived in” quality to what they do.  I also have to give a little call out to Wes Bentley as Seneca, who I guess is the “producer” of the games.  Not so much for his performance, but more for being willing to let the filmmakers mold him into the cartoon character villain (and appearance wise, really all he needs are real horns coming out of his forehead).  That actually takes some stones to give yourself over to that, so good for Wes.

So in the end, well, The Hunger Games just wasn’t for me.  I’m clearly not it’s intended audience though I was most certainly willing to give it a chance.  It’s intended audience will no doubt absolutely love this to death and if this weekend’s box office is any indication, I think it’s a safe bet that you’ll all get your sequels in the future.  I believe I will pass on those and if I want to see something that uses this similar premise again, I’ll just satisfy myself by picking up the just-released DVD or Blu-Ray of the far superior Battle Royale or else watch something like The Running Man again (which at least knows how to not take itself so damn seriously).  Happy Hunger Games everybody!

By Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

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