Review: The Hunger Games
With its huge opening weekend, “The Hunger Games” seems to be the newest hot property to take the young adult pop-culture world by storm. However, rather than follow the formula of the most recent blockbuster sagas Harry Potter and “Twilight”, “The Hunger Games” stands on its own in a few important ways. For one, it tackles subjects and themes far beyond what Stephanie Meyer has ever attempted, as well as being a much more thrilling and competently produced film. And while it falls short of the very best of the Harry Potter films, “The Hunger Games” is unquestionably stronger than the opening chapters of that franchise and is worth seeing whether you are familiar with the books or not. Also important to note is that “The Hunger Games” largely succeeds in establishing its purpose and importance.
I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalyptic fare, so it didn’t take too long for me to become invested in the world presented here. We find ourselves in an unspecified point in time where a rebellion has been quelled against a powerful capitol city. It seems there were 13 districts of poor, working class types that rebelled (and failed), leaving them to suffer while citizens of the capital live in luxury. Because of all this failure, the 12 remaining districts are forced to participate in the annual “Hunger Games” as a sort of retribution disguised as a “peace offering” that reminds everyone what happened in the past. The capital is clearly using the games to exercise power over the districts, creating the fear necessary to keep them in line while also using their own public’s thirst for bloodsport to distract them from other matters of reality. The games themselves involve one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18 from each district being randomly chosen to participate, with the 24 total “tributes” fighting to the death in an elaborate reality show that lasts until there is a lone victor. The more obnoxious pop-culture aspects of today are amped up a considerable amount, giving the more fortunate citizens of tomorrow styles and personalities that are believable while still being ridiculous to our eyes.
This is a film that falls into a comfortable zone between being familiar enough to jump right into the story, but unique enough to not feel like a rehash. The story combined a sort of roman gladiator scenario with a futuristic science fiction universe, allowing it to appeal on on multiple levels. The 80’s Arnold Schwarzenegger film “The Running Man” made a similar point of examining society’s fascination with violence and reality programming, but in the end stayed more on the popcorn action flick side of things. By having the protagonist of this tale be a strong-willed teenage girl, the audience is more easily able to connect with the situation and feel the weight of the implications. The strong performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss lends itself well to keeping the audience engaged even when the more predictable moments of the script kick in. We want her to win, so it doesn’t matter if we expect her to or not. There are also a few welcome wrinkles sprinkled in along the way to keep things interesting. The rest of the cast is pretty good across the board. I especially enjoyed Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson’s time on screen.
An admirable job was done to make sure even non-readers of the pick picked up on important background and subtext to the story. There are numerous hooks to make sure we want to see what happens next even though this is a movie that could stand on its own if need be. One of the strongest moments of the film involves the audience back at one of the districts being inspired into action due to what happens on the screen in front of them. Although there were clearly details cut out from the book, wise choices were made to ensure viewers new to the material could follow along and feel the impact.
It is rather obvious to note when watching the film which parts were crafted specifically with the PG-13 rating in mind. While the story and much of the action is indeed dark, featuring large crowds cheering for violence against children and women, the direction purposefully avoids showing anything too graphic in that regard. Whether it’s simply cutting away at the right moment or employing a hearty amount of shaky-cam, most of the action is done in a very safe way, making sure not to be offensive to the wide audiences it’s sure to attract. In my opinion, the film would have been stronger with the freedom allowed by a harder rating, but I understand why the decisions were made how they were. The shaky camera style can border on excessive at time, but it only used during sequences which are meant to put the audience in the moment and in the end didn’t bother me.
The critiques I have of the film largely center around the climax. While the first half of the film flows nicely, doing the job of introducing the characters and setting up bits for later on, the climax feels, well, anti-climactic. Over half of the film is spent on the game itself, so it’s disappointing when the climactic battle this has been leading up to end up feeling rushed and unsatisfying. Also, the motivations of those in charge of running the game could have been more clear, as they make a few decisions that manipulate the game, and at times it seems arbitrary. The biggest issues are inherent to the source material, as the story seems to be unwilling to force our heroin into making any truly tough choices. This does her a disservice, as she’s a good character but could benefit even more from seeing her decision making in the event of a “lose/lose” scenario. Anytime we come close here there is something written in to protect her. The love story is weak but this is not an installment that requires it to be more. It serves the purpose of showing how Katniss must manipulate the audience and those in charge in order to survive.
When “The Hunger Games” succeeds, it does so by being much more sophisticated offering than the usual blockbuster/young adult fare. The pacing only briefly lets up about 2/3rds in, which is impressive considering the 2.5 hour length. The big brother scenario of a technologically superior government with ultimate control is very topical today, as good science fiction always is. It should be interesting to see where things go from here, as the rest of the series will certainly be made in response to the popularity of this opening film. As it stands, “The Hunger Games” is an engaging piece of entertainment all on its own.