Saturday, September 15, 2012
The Hunger Games
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, 142 minutes
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland and Amandla Stenburg
The Top 5 films at the box office (worldwide) this year are: The Avengers ($1.5 billion), The Dark Knight Rises ($1 billion), Ice Age: Continental Drift ($836 million), The Amazing Spider-Man ($744 million) and The Hunger Games ($645 million). In the US, The Hunger Games ranks third behind The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. It's clear that comic book heroes sell, and other key elements are action and conflict. The Hunger Games aims to give us a new fantasy hero to follow after the conclusion of the Harry Potter franchise.
Does it succeed?
The movie is an adaptation of the first part of a trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins, which was initially aimed at young adults. But, like the Harry Potter series, the trilogy appeals to readers of all ages. I can't comment on the quality of the books because I haven't read them, so I don't know how faithful the movie adaptation is. All I can judge is how well the story works on the big screen. The second movie in the series is set for a 2013 release, while the final part of the trilogy will be split into two movies. So, to answer my question, The Hunger Games is a resounding success as a financial venture and it's enormously popular.
Financial success is one thing, but is the movie worth your time? I guess that depends on what you find entertaining. Let me describe what you can expect.
The story opens with a glimpse into the life of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence). We learn that she lives in one of the poorest of twelve districts in Panem, and that food is scarce. She feeds her mother and sister by hunting for game in the woods and she's a gifted archer. The twelve districts hold a lottery each year to select a boy and girl to represent them. The 24 children will fight to the death and only a single victor will survive. When Katniss sees her young sister chosen, she volunteers to take her place. The chosen boy from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson).
That's all we are told about life in District 12. This is not a drama in which we learn about the struggle to live under such a regime, it's more of an action movie. The story moves on quickly and we are shown the sharp contrast between District 12 and the Capitol, where the population is wealthy and the games are seen as nothing more than a form of entertainment. Katniss and Peeta are interviewed on television by host Caesar Flickerman (Tucci). The Capitol is presented as weird and decadent, and most people look like extras from Amadeus. One character looks to be based on Rita Skeeter from Harry Potter. I had the impression that these people were weird for the sake of being weird and it didn't feel convincing.
The movie plays out like an American version of Battle Royale with elements from The Running Man added for good measure. Those in control of the game can intervene at will using computers. Sometimes they will send medicine, while at other times they will harm or kill some of the contestants. It's all a grotesque manipulation aimed at entertaining the population in the Capitol.
Director Gary Ross is a gifted storyteller, and he also has writing credits for Big, Pleasantville, and Seabiscuit. Unlike all three of those movies, I found that The Hunger Games lacked depth. It's obvious why I am supposed to root for Katniss as she risks her own life to save her sister, but there aren't enough background details to make me connect with her strongly. It felt more like a cynical plot device than anything that was remotely real.
So, for me, The Hunger Games became something of a comic book. There is an attempt at showing group dynamics. Who will work together? At what point will they try to kill each other? Who will take their chances alone? What skills will each of the characters have? How inventive will the deaths be? But the attempt is flawed because some of the most dangerous contestants are displayed as sneering idiots, and it detracts from the seriousness of the situation. This is supposed to be a battle for survival, not a comedy?
I'm trying to give a balanced review, but some of the battles are rather silly. That's not to say that the movie doesn't have a few good moments. One alliance in particular did resonate with me and I reacted emotionally to the death of one character.
My overall impression is one of sadness. Not because of the death of some of the characters, but at what we are becoming as a society. Do we really need to see children fight to the death in order to be entertained? As with modern comedies, we are relying more on shock value than good writing. Katniss Everdeen was portrayed well by a promising actress, but original ideas were few and far between. You know almost exactly what to expect from The Hunger Games before it begins, and most events are thoroughly predictable.
The next three movies will be a huge success, I am sure, but I'm not anxiously awaiting their release. I'm glad that I avoided The Hunger Games in theaters and waited to borrow the Blu-ray from a friend. Don't label me as a prude or someone who is against violence in movies. One of my favorites is Kill Bill, but, unlike the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, I was shown enough background to care about what happened to The Bride.
This movie does have a huge audience as I outlined at the beginning. If you are the kind of moviegoer who enjoys action, good presentation, and special effects, The Hunger Games will entertain you. You'll need to switch your brain off for a couple of hours, but movies like this do have their place. I guess that's why they get made. I am left wondering about the book and how much was left out. Don't let this review stop you from buying the Blu-ray (which looks and sounds fantastic) or checking out the movie for yourself. I'm clearly in the minority on this one.
(Edit to add: After seeing this movie for the second time, I eventually ended up buying it. It seems that I was in the wrong mood the first time I saw it. Jennifer Lawrence is very good in the role and I am planning to see the sequels and maybe even read the books).
Overall score 3/5 (Subsequently upgraded to 3.75/5)
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