As I waited in line for a sold out show at 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night, I thought to myself “Is this going to be worth it?” I had no prior knowledge of The Hunger Games outside of the fact that its been anticipated…I have friend who worked on it…its a novel…and that it opened over the weekend with some ungodly Box Office records. I usually shy away from stuff like this because the hype generates so much false hope that it can only be a let down. I am happy to say that I quite enjoyed the movie — even at its daunting 140 minute duration.
The plot is nothing new. Violence as a means of entertainment. Gladiators, boxing, NASCAR… or at the least crashes at NASCAR. And even being taken to this extreme is nothing novel. The events being televised, manipulated by the powers that be, creating fictionalized drama to mold the emotions of the audience. All that has been covered by They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Death Race 2000 (the original one, not that Paul W.S. Anderson horseshit), The Running Man, Battle Royale, and to a less violent extent, The Truman Show. But really, THIS is the crux of this science-fiction parable — satiating the masses with “real” drama. And not “a bunch of kids are going to kill each other”. In fact, its not about the deaths at all — its about the survivors. Its about hope as Donald Sutherland’s President states cynically. And more importantly, one particular survivor — Katniss Everdeen.
I remember Jennifer Lawrence from X-Men:First Class and while I thought she was fine as Mystique and I could never picture her growing up to be Rebecca Romijn, and I wasn’t blown away. Furthermore, I have yet to catch her in her Oscar nominated role in Winter’s Bone. As Katniss (which I kept mistakenly hearing as “Candice”, and thinking “What a mundane name for a girl in a post-apocalyptic future”), Lawrence is spellbinding. If she were portrayed by a weaker actress, I strongly feel that the movie would have failed. Maybe not financially, but certainly emotionally, for Katniss is the emotional and moral core of the film. We spend every minute with her. We don’t hear the conversations she’s not privy to. We get disoriented after a close proximity explosion. We experience her hallucinations and disorientation after being stung by genetically modified bees called Jacker Jackets, or Tracker Jackets, or Jitter Jacky Jungle Jackets — some silly, mis-thought name. This is Katniss’ story from beginning to end. And Lawrence holds it together.
The concept is that 75 years previous, an uprising happened in the Districts in Panem (aka North America). They rose up against the Capitol (aka the Government) because of impoverished living conditions. The uprising was quashed, and as penance for being bad boys and girls, each district must annually serve up two children, a boy and girl, between 12 and 18 to participate in The Hunger Games and represent their district. Why its 12-18? I am not sure. Why not 16-18 — or just 18? Which might be symbolic of conscription. Maybe its to broaden the demographic of the readers? I dunno. Anyway, The Hunger Games is a fight to the death between the 24 participants. Its about survival and murder. When Katniss’ younger sister is chosen in the lottery, Katniss herself volunteers to take her place. Katniss is established a marksman (markswoman) with a bow, having had to hunt game for food and for bartering in her little coal mining district. The chosen guy is Peeta Mellark (who I thought was named Peter… again, silly me) played not as strongly by Josh Hutcherson.
The kids are trained to the Capitol — on a train. And then they are trained in battle and survival tactics — even though its obvious that some have already been in training for this very event. Katniss and Peeta are groomed for the television audience by completely plastic Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks from Zack and Miri Make A Porno), mentored by drunk but sagely previous Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (wonderfully deep Woody Harrelson — and a name that I did NOT mistake for anything else), and tailored with firey clothing by Cinnur (surprisingly subtle and tender Lenny Kravitz). And as they go through the process of preparing for the games, we are given quality time to learn about and care about the characters, because when the games begin, the audience has to be able to root for Katniss. I mean, we KNOW she’s going to survive. That’s not the point. We also KNEW the Titantic was going to sink. Its all about caring for this one girl — and the other people she cares about. The other 20-some odd players? Who gives a shit? They’re all redshirts.
They go into the games, emceed by Staney Tucci as the purple-haired, gleemy-smiled Caeser Flickerman — a representation of all smarmy reality show hosts. And this is probably the most gruesome part of the film. The start of the games. A semicircle of kids flanking a stockpile of weapons. They run in and its a slaughter. But the director goes Alfred Hitchcock on us at this moment. Where a film like Battle Royale relishes in showing just how gruesome they can make death. Gary Ross goes into a montage of cross cuts of weapon slashing, blood drips, wrestling, knife throws, etc — which I’m sure if you went through frame by frame still wouldn’t reveal any onscreen evisceration. I’m positive this was to keep our rating into PG-13, which means a larger demographic, which means more money. However, it means that the scene does have a false impact, especially to perhaps more sensitive audience members and children who have not yet been properly desensitized by TV and video games. This is because one’s brain has a tendency to fill in the gaps — and it fills it much more effectively than any onscreen violence can do. Furthermore, the scene is brief, chaotic, and.. then its over. After that, its all about Katniss and how she survives.
And that is what Katniss is about. Survival. As I said, she is the moral core. She is not out to kill. And she only does so once, and that is out of impulsive self-defense. All others are accidental, someone else does it for her, or as a sympathy kill. This HAS to happen. Because the audience is essentially Katniss, we can never be put into a position where we are choosing to kill. No one wants to be put into the shoes of the gang of douchebags who team up to take out the others. And that’s how it should be. When tailoring a movie to a young audience, you are compelled to have them empathize with a moral character — regardless of the violence surrounding them.
Director Gary Ross chooses his projects carefully. He’s only directed three films in the last 15 some odd years – Pleasantville, Seabisquit, and now this. He keeps the tension taut. He allows us to get inside Katniss’ character so we can feel her loss and her victories. The chosen visual style much too shakey for me — like they are trying to get a documentary verisimilitude, but its not consistent enough to be a used as a storytelling device, and frankly it ranges from distracting to confusing. I got into the film much deeper when I didn’t have to try and decipher what was happening. I don’t need a docu feel when two people are talking. I blame a lot of this on Steven Soderbergh, who for some reason took a second unit director credit on this — probably as a favor for Ross, who wrote Oceans 11 for Soderbergh. Not so much a favor in my book
The art direction was compelling — making very drastic distinctions between the poverty stricken District 12 and the lavish, gaudy, and ridiculous Capitol City. In fact, I don’t think I’m reaching when I say that the crazy makeup and hair styles depict the city people and the rabid Hunger Games audience in a way that reflects in exaggeration, the consumers of reality TV, celebrity worship, and vapid high fashion. Although, this would absolutely be lost on the very crowd that its mocking. It looks like Lady Gaga’s vomited over the city. In fact, the designs were done by Greg Hetrick, who IS Lady Gaga’s designer.
There were a lot of visual effects houses on the slate, with much of the FX work pretty invisible, or at least invisible enough that it didn’t take me out of the story. Although there were a few shots that screamed “Final it, we’re out of time”. And some deadly dogs really didn’t work for me in the least. Get some real Rottweilers or something guys! Would have been fine in a Narnia movie or something. Not really here.
And to wrap up, as I think about it, I don’t think there was enough, if any, reflection on the deeper themes of the movie. Why were they still doing this after 75 years? Why is it young children that get put in? There are brief comments on not catering to audiences — not changing who they are in order to entertain. But really, that’s exactly what they end up doing. When you have a parable that reflects today’s society and today’s problems, perhaps there is a nail that needs to be hit on the head.