Monday, April 2, 2012

The Hunger Games

Young Adult literature has come a long way in the past few years, with some of the most popular books and movies falling within that genre's boundaries.  I don't consider myself a YA fan (although I did enjoy Harry Potter), but it's hard to ignore the success and rabid fan base for some of these franchises.  When The Hunger Games was announced, I have to admit that I wasn't particularly excited.  My knowledge of the series came primarily from my youngest cousin, who also enjoys Twilight to a disturbing degree.  Still, the dearth of other interesting movies in theaters, combined with its impressive opening weekend box office numbers piqued my interest in catching The Hunger Games.
I'm so happy that I'm not the only person who immediately thought of this

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenager living in District 12, which appears to consist of what was once Appalachia.  Thankfully, there isn't any meth in this future, but the region is still dirt poor, with the inhabitants scraping just to survive.  While the setting doesn't look futuristic (yet), you do catch a glimpse of a flying car.  That's not the only innovation in this future; taking a hint from Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, the kids of this futuristic super-state participate in the Hunger Games.  Every year, a boy and a girl (ages 12-18) are randomly chosen  to represent each district (hint: there are twelve) as Tributes in a fight to the death, which serves as televised entertainment for the masses.  You get entered in the lottery in a variety of ways, whether once for every year you are eligible, or your family can opt to enter your name in multiple times to receive more food or other necessities.  Thanks, Mom.  When Katniss' sister is selected as Tribute in her first year of eligibility, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  Why?  Well, Katniss is basically a bad-ass; she is an ace archer, she's obviously strong, is emotionally tough, and already cares for her sister like she would a daughter.  Of course she volunteers to save her sister's life.  Just as obviously, this wouldn't appeal to the YA fans if it was just about teens murdering teens.  No, the cards are beyond stacked against Katniss.  For starters, there are other Tributes who spend their lives training for the Games, who have grown up learning how to kill and how to survive. 
The first lesson is to look extremely smug
And it's not like this battle royale is taking place in a stadium; they are inserted into an environment that is a hostile and rugged wilderness.  Well, maybe not a wilderness.  Actually, it's a huge structure that takes the shape of whatever the evil Gamesmakers choose; it looks like an ordinary forest, but if the Gamesmakers get bored, they can add horrifying predators or natural disasters to the mix and spice things up.  Oh, and there is the added challenge of being likable while going through this terrifying ordeal.  Sometimes, when a Tribute gets popular enough with the home viewers, but finds him/herself in a bind, the viewers can choose to sponsor that contestant and send them a little help (food, medicine, etc.).  Katniss the tough girl isn't a natural pick for the country's little darling.  Add a little teenage romance to all that, and you've got The Hunger Games in a nutshell.

The first thing you will probably notice about The Hunger Games is how familiar it is.  The most obvious parallels are The Lottery and Battle Royale, but the basics of this story have popped up in a variety of films before.  The reality television angle has been covered in The Truman Show, the battle to the death has come up in a number of movies (Death Race 2000 is a personal favorite), the invasive government is similar to so many post-apocalyptic futures (1984, V For Vendetta, etc.), and the whole kids-killing-kids theme has obviously been popularized in Lord of the Flies.  Hell, even movies you wouldn't immediately compare to a dystopian science fiction tale have some surprising parallels; Jennifer Lawrence first gained acclaim for her work in Winter's Bone, where she played poor white trash in Appalachia that is strong, determined, takes care of her siblings, has a worthless mother, hunts to supplement the family income, and puts herself in harm's way to protect her family.  Sound familiar? 
Some scenes are even reminiscent of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo

Luckily, the story is told in a way that doesn't force those realizations on you immediately (or, at least you don't really mind when you figure them out).  Director Gary Ross does an admirable job respecting the audience's intelligence throughout this film.  So many other directors would have gone out of their way to explain some of the concepts in The Hunger Games, but Ross often chooses the subtle approach.  Sure, he could have characters in District 12 mutter about how posh and spoiled the people in the capital are, but he simply opts to let their appearances speak for them.
This look suggests "jackass"
Ross also refuses to give much background to the story.  A history of the Games is not given.  The meanings of certain gestures are learned only through context.  Many plot details are handled in a similar fashion.  I have to admit that I really, really appreciated that.  I hate when science fiction films go out of their way to showcase how awesome/ridiculous their technology is (I'm looking at you, Aeon Flux).  The Hunger Games tells an interesting (if familiar) story within a fully-realized sci-fi world, a la Blade Runner.  I wouldn't say that Ross had excellent cinematography or any spectacular artiness on display here, but I thought he did a good job making a story-driven film that was accessible to casual viewers but had enough details to please hardcore fans.
Except, of course, for the racist ones

The acting in The Hunger Games was pretty solid.  Jennifer Lawrence again plays a strong heroine, and she once again impresses.  There are so few good, strong female roles in Hollywood, it is nice to see someone play such a role convincingly.  Katniss is definitely the main character in this story, but the leading supporting cast member, Peeta, was played ably by Josh Hutcherson.  Yes, he's kind of a weenie, but that appears to be how the character was meant to be played.  The next most noteworthy cast member was definitely Woody Harrelson; he went from uncaring drunk to able mentor a little too easily for my liking, but Harrelson is a welcome addition to just about any cast.  Elizabeth Banks was almost unrecognizable as Effie, wearing a nightmarish makeup blend that seemed to mix a poodle with cotton candy.
Good idea.  Put the mic close to capture the sound of mouth breathing
The other Tributes didn't really impress me much.  Out of the other twenty-two contestants, I recognized Alexander Ludwig and was mildly impressed with his choice to play a villain; I was a little creeped out by Isabelle Fuhrman; and I thought Amandla Stenberg was adorable.  Oh, and the son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, Jack Quaid, makes his debut here, but he doesn't say or do much.  There are a number of smaller parts played by recognizable actors in this film, as well.  Donald Sutherland plays the evil Big Brother analogue with tired competence.  Toby Jones appears to be in a Phil Spector lookalike competition.
Stanley Tucci looked just as ridiculous as an overbearing television personality.  This film also marks a few milestones for certain actors.  Lenny Kravitz was surprisingly good in his small role; I was expecting Gavin Rossdale-level crappiness from Kravitz, but he was actually quite likable.  I was also happy to see Wes Bentley in a movie; ever since American Beauty, I have been hoping for him to do something cool.  This isn't it, but it's a solid supporting role that will hopefully lead to that movie I dreamed up where he and Christopher Walken play father-son psychopaths.
P.S.: Fantastic beard.  That is Wooly Willy good

So, the question remains: is this a movie for you?  Well, I can't imagine anyone who would absolutely hate The Hunger Games.  That's not necessarily an endorsement, I know, but this is an entertaining movie.  The familiarity of the concept made it feel a little long to me, but I wasn't bored.  As much as I liked Jennifer Lawrence, I wish she had shown a little more range; she had the same wide-eyed look of surprise in a number of scenes, and she always seemed to convey nervousness by leaving her mouth open.
Given that the target demographic for this film is teenagers, and since all teenagers (even former ones) are by definition complete idiots, I thought The Hunger Games turned out surprisingly well.   It's pretty dark, the romance angle is fairly subtle, and it was well-directed.  Personally, I wouldn't put it on par with the joyous fantasy of a Harry Potter movie, but it is definitely leaps and bounds above Twilight.  It didn't blow me away, but there is no denying that this is a solid film that can appeal to just about everyone.


  1. I think you are being a little kind here. This movie did nothing outside of blanket entertainment. Every character has one dimension (i.e. EVIL KIDS!), you do not particularly care for anyone, and, as you pointed out, there is nothing original going on here. This is a well recycled story, pureed into an easily digested form for YA audiences to eat up because they never saw/read its superior ancestors. I went into this one hoping for the best and left disappointed and bored. The most entertainment I got was Katniss' name kinda sounding like "cat piss" (which still makes me giggle).

    1. Cat piss is funny.

      Yes, this is derivative and its success far outstrips its quality. But I think I wasn't too harsh here because I went in expecting a lot less. For me, the direction made all the difference. Take the same actors and story and give it to, say, Joel Schumacher, and you have a cliched piece of crap. Instead, I think this is a better-than-average cliche.