Director: Gary Ross
Release Date: 23rd March 2012
Run time: 142 minutes
Actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks,Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland.
Every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the evil Capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. A twisted punishment for a past uprising and an ongoing government intimidation tactic, The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event in which “Tributes” must fight with one another until one survivor remains. Pitted against highly-trained Tributes who have prepared for these Games their entire lives, Katniss is forced to rely upon her sharp instincts as well as the mentor ship of drunken former victor Haymitch Abernathy. If she’s ever to return home to District 12, Katniss must make impossible choices in the arena that weigh survival against humanity and life against love. THE HUNGER GAMES is directed by Gary Ross, and produced by Nina Jacobson’s Color Force in tandem with producer Jon Kilik. Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel, the first in a trilogy published by Scholastic that has over 16 million copies in print in the United States alone, has developed a massive global following.
I’m going to have to assume that this movie is aimed squarely at people who have read the book. The reason for this is that despite being a competently made and nice looking film, after two and a bit hours of watching I’m still none the wiser about virtually any aspect the world or society where The Hunger Games takes place. The movie paints the world in broad strokes when what it really needs is a finer brush and this is a problem that remains throughout.
From what I gathered in the world of The Hunger Games society is now split into two distinct classes; the decadent ruling class who reside in the Capitol living a life of opulent luxury and hideous fashion choices, and those living in the impoverished twelve Districts who work in coal mines, farms and other blue-collared jobs crushed under the hell of the Capitol’s totalitarian regime. Every year two children from each District between ages 12 and 18 are selected via a lottery to take part in a battle to the death to be televised live across the nation. These are the titular Hunger Games.
- Pictured: Probably not the rules of the Hunger Games.
This year, for the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to be the female “tribute” for District 12 in the games. She volunteers so she can the take the place of her younger sister, Primrose, who is chosen by the lottery. The early scenes between Katniss and her sister are among the most effective in the film. Even though the screen time they share is short Katniss and Primrose’s bond is very well conceived and commendably acted by both girls and I had no trouble believing that Katniss would genuinely be willing risk her life to save her younger sibling. Also selected from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, the male tribute and schoolmate of Katniss. They are trained together prior to the games before ultimately being forced into battle as enemies.
The first hour of the movie follows Katniss and Peeta selection for the games, their physical training and them being paraded before the repugnant Capitol masses like prize pets before being sent to the slaughter. This first hour represents the weakest section of the movie. It moves at a snail’s pace and devotes a lot of time to events that don’t help us get to know the characters or the world in enough depth. Numerous times in the first hour many characters extol how important it is for Katniss and Peeta to find sponsors (rich backers who will apparently furnish them with survival equipment and weapons during the games) so several scenes are devoted to having them do things to make themselves a more attractive and exciting prospect for sponsors to take interest.
Yet when the games finally started I could see no evidence that all this time spent attracting sponsors made one jot of difference. Katniss starts the games with no special weapons or equipment and the movie doesn’t actually make it clear if she did find sponsors or what they provided if she did.
- Seriously, what possible reason would you want to sponsor her for anyway?
I only point this out because so many scenes were devoted to it. If all the “attracting a sponsor” scenes had been left on the cutting room floor it would have considerably improved the pacing in the first act and nothing would have been sacrificed from the narrative. Maybe this is explained better in the book but in the movie it had me baffled why so much time was spent on something that was ultimately forgotten about once the games began.
When The Hunger Games finally start the movie becomes a fight for Katniss’ survival. Things do pick up to a degree once the killing erupts but my initial worries before the movie began were not alleviated as the carnage commenced. I was concerned how a Battle Royale-style concept would be executed firmly within the child-friendly safety of a 12A /PG-13 rating – the honest answer is not well.
In order to stay within the confines of the 12A rating the violence is bloodless and without intensity. That is to be expected I suppose but what I can’t excuse is the excruciating use of the “shaky cam” effect to mask any hint of danger. Any time a fight breaks out the camera judders insanely to the point where it is practically impossible to tell what’s happening. The opening massacre of the games looks more like a playground scrap than the brutal slaying of several teenagers because the camera cuts or shakes wildly away any time a knife or weapon is thrust or swung.
I’m certainly not going to judge a film solely on the cinematography of the violence because there is slightly more to it than that (and if I did the movie would not fare well). The movie is about Katniss and her battle for survival. Unfortunately that’s all it’s really about. If you’re looking for social commentary or interesting narrative you’ve come to the wrong place. The story is as straightforward as it gets. There are Hunger Games, children fight and die in the games and the winner returns home. The End. There are some attempts to show the poverty and oppression by the ruling class but all this manages to convey is that poverty and oppression are bad and that people who oppress are bad.
There is a romantic subplot (how could there not be?) but by the end of the film I still wasn’t clear on the status of the romantic relationship. Was is all a ploy to get the Hunger Games’ audience on side or was it real love or something in between? I honestly couldn’t tell you.
With such a simple story the whole thing ends up hanging on Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss to keep us engaged. In that regard she is likeable and easy to root for but this is also helped no end by all the other children being one dimensionally good or evil. A very weak attempt at characterising her main opponent is thrown in at the end but it’s too little too late. You end up having to root for Katniss by default because all other combatants (except perhaps Peeta) are characterless non-entities. Jennifer Lawrence is effective in the emotional moments but once the Hunger Games start Katniss suddenly becomes a blander version of herself. Perhaps she was trying to emotionally disconnect herself from the idea of killing other people but she seems to lose something of her personality during the fighting.
A subplot involving another younger combatant seeks to provide a much needed emotional gut-punch but the child in question has virtually no lines or characterisation so I had nothing invested in their survival. The film seems to think that just because the child is very young that alone will create pathos but I am a jaded, empty man and it takes more than that to move my leaden heart. Your mileage may vary depending on how cute you think the kid is though.
The film also throws new elements into the mix with little or no explanation and as this happened ever more frequently it really started to grate on my nerves. At one point fireballs start raining down on Katniss but no explanation is given as to how this was possible within the confines of the games. Large wolf-like animals are seemingly teleported into the battle area and I wasn’t sure if they were real animals or holographic virtual beasts. A single one-liner explanation would have sufficed to explain both of the these points but not even that much was offered (they were too busy writing extraneous dialogue about sponsors, I suppose).
In another example of the film’s lack of establishing explanation I had to resort to Wikipedia to discover that The Hunger Games is set in post apocalyptic America as the movie neglected to explain that fact properly, or even if it was set on Earth at all. As it lumbered onwards I got the sinking feeling that having not read the book I was missing out on a lot of extra detail that would have made the whole experience hang together better but as it was I kept wondering how all these random events were possible. Was the battle area all virtual or a real place? The movie implies both at different points and neglects to actually offer clarification one way or another.
Woody Harrelson (an actor I generally enjoy watching) is wasted in his role as battle mentor to Katniss and Donald Sutherland looks puzzled to even be there as he is completely irrelevant to the entire movie. I couldn’t see any valid reason for his character to have any screen time beyond his initial appearance yet he keeps reappearing with the sole purpose of showing himself to be generically heartless and nasty.
I should note now that I am aware the book and film are aimed at teenagers and I’m probably being a bit harsh on it. I’m also well aware than a lot of the issues with the movie may not be present in the book and perhaps the movie is a completely different proposition after having read the original. But that doesn’t give a free pass for the film to be unengaging, full of unexplained events and more than a little dull. It’s a shame because the idea has bucket loads of potential and with a little more bite and a tighter focus this could have been something great. As it is The Hunger Games feels underwritten, overly long and too tame by half.
2 / 5
Tags: america, book, captiol, children, death, decadent, fireball, hunger games, jennifer lawrence, katniss, pg-13, post apocalypse, romance, survival, wolves