Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s something built into my jaded generation, but I end up assuming everything will be a steaming plate of shit and chips unless it first provides certification of its not-shit nature. In triplicate. Such was my assumption about The Hunger Games; when I first heard about it, my reaction was Didn’t I already read/watch this when it was called Battle Royale? An attempt to reformat the Japanese original’s totalitarian state and teenage gladiatorial death arena for the palate of Western audiences, namely the post-Potter Twilight generation?
Yeah. I should stop assuming things.
The setup is pretty straightforward. Generations after a failed uprising/civil war, the post-apocalyptic remains of North America have restitched themselves under the control of the victorious state of Panem. As punishment for their attempted rebellion, the outlying areas have been divvied up into districts, operating as combination collective farms and industrial plants and kept in a state of suppressed poverty. Once per year, two teenagers—a boy and a girl—are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games: a futuristic deathmatch where these Tributes fight to the death, with the Panem and District citizens watching the ordeal in a rapt fervor. Twenty-four teenagers enter, one teenager leaves.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12; when her younger sister is chosen, she volunteers in her stead. A talented archer, she manages to overcome the prejudices weighted against her district through unconventional tactics. See, well-to-do viewers may sponsor the participants with air-dropped gifts, such as medicine or food, and the Games are equal part survival course, combat mission, and showboating for fans. District 12’s other Tribute, a strapping young lad named Peeta, manages to showboat a little too far when he reveals he has a secret crush on Katniss—snap! I wonder what her boyfriend back home thinks about this?
Their drunken advisor—Woody Harrelson, since Woody Harrelson is in freaking everything—urges them to play up this star-crossed lovers angle. Even as they get into the meat of the film—the third act is the Games themselves, after some long and bloated setup—their relationship develops onward, despite the foregone outcome that one of the two will die. The hope is that Katniss will get more sponsors this way… because they’re all guessing Katniss is the only one with a chance, and needs all the help she can get. Their strained relationship ebbs and flows during the game, but by the end, it becomes both the foundation and moving force of the film.
On the one hand, this is a grim futuristic dystopia with a Young Adult love-story that can appeal equally to girls and boys. On a deeper level, this film a scathing satire of our glorious technological future. Contrast the pastoral, 1950s-drab outlying Districts with the glitz and glamor of the Capital City, an amalgam of the stereotypical worst excesses of D.C. insiders and the Hollywood elite, the One Percent turned to eleven—it’s a modern-day Metropolis gone Lord of the Flies.
And note the connection between the Hunger Games and modern society, with their sponsors and mass-media appeal, the vicarious viewers whose emotions are played by this reality TV show gone Thunderdome. It’s in the same vein as Battle Royale, yes, but also treks back through the history of the totalitarian dystopia through Logan’s Run (check out those jumpsuits!), Orwell, and Huxley; it emerged with many similarities, but still has something new and interesting to say.
As the first installment of a trilogy, it has that problem where unique and interesting concepts are introduced but left undeveloped. For example, the Games take place in an artificial, controlled environment, and Gamesmasters are shown to have the ability to drop in new threats to herd, or weed out, the participants… something that’s used about twice. I’ll bet that comes back in the sequels, since it’s a concept that shouldn’t be so woefully underused. There are a number of blatantly obvious questions, many about the setting, that are never answered, and any social criticism is left in the allegorical stage, buried under the surface-level narrative.
An actual film complaint—pretty much my only one—is that is uses the bane of today’s moviegoer… the shaky-cam. Imagine dropping a half-dozen teenagers, a camcorder set to record at full zoom, and some pit bulls into a cement mixer, and you have The Hunger Games‘ fight sequences. The first time it’s used, it can follow its purpose: that would be the initial slaughter when the Tributes are released into the Games, the scrimmage over the supplies left before them. Reflecting the stress and chaos of the moment, with distanced sounds and nervous breathing, it works, without obscuring the action too greatly. And the scenes in the Games have these hand-held, documentary look, which could reflect Katniss’ unsteady nerves or whatever, so there’s already some unsteady-cam action going on.
After that, it does pretty much what shaky-cam cinematography always does: acts as a crutch for inept/lazy directors and/or actors, obscuring the lack of choreography. “You actors, just sprawl around on the ground slapping each other while Bob films from inside a tumble dryer; don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.” The fight sequences are a muddled mess of close-ups and jerky handheld cameras and bad lighting; as either consolation or an addendum, they’re also way damn short.
The teenage actors all did admirable performances. Josh Hutcherson stumbles occasionally as Peeta, but he gives an all-around solid performance that I can’t complain about. Supporting cast such as Lenny Cravitz, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland are excellent, and Stanley Tucci hams things up as the Games’ newscaster/reporter. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss who steals the show; her ability to emote is sublime, which is in high demand in The Hunger Games, with some emotionally powerful scenes. She also manages to pull off a strong, independent Tomboy who’s still sexy—and since the traditional genre stereotypes are thrown on their heads, with Katniss caretaking an injured Peeta, we have yet another solid female rolemodel from a science-fiction-tinged action movie.
Within The Hunger Games we have an entertaining action film, a Young Adult love story, a dystopia, a cunning social satire, a modern parable for the 99% generation, and probably two or three other things I left out. It’s one of those few films that appeals to teens and adults without compromising—the thematic allegories are vague, not dense or bludgeoning; the action is frenetic, but not the focus; the love story is engaging, not sappy. The effects are slick, and the film’s vision is sweeping and uncompromising, if under-detailed. Its pre-Game half grew long, and the shaky-cam sequences are shit, flaws marring an otherwise solid movie.
I don’t think it’ll go down in history as a landmark film—save for making bank at the box-office—and it might not be the one 2012 movie you remember ten years from now. But The Hunger Games is certainly worth watching.