Hitting the scene as perhaps the world's current and foremost-presold film franchise, "The Hunger Games" has zero aspirations about succeeding as a stand-alone work. We're clearly looking at Film One of a Multi-Part Saga, and it has the non-resolution and dangling tantalizing story threads to prove it. But it also has a certain dignity and aplomb, even as it doesn't entirely succeed on every avenue it sets upon. But when it does work, it works as well as any great movie - franchise or no. Clearly this is more "Harry Potter" than "Twilight".
Built on social, political and cultural metaphors that are effectively applied in a cacophony of the familiar, "The Hunger Games" nonetheless wins out, poised to be a central film of today's world. Merging the shopworn idea of the dehumanizing human hunt with class warfare and the age divide, all of it playing out via reality television, the film is the most effective committee-generated hodgepodge I've witnesses in a while. It's as though "The Most Dangerous Game", "Logan's Run", "Lord of the Flies", "Brazil", "Max Headroom" and "The Running Man" went into the blender for a battle royale. Why does it work? The same reasons any decent film works - skillful artistry and craftsmanship along with solid acting. A film on fire!
Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen, the resourceful and selfless bow-hunting girl next door. Her world sucks, ravaged by drought, soot and poverty, all in the wake of some sort of cataclysmic global nightmare. She loves her little sister, taking her place in the annual Hunger Games - a preposterously barbaric woodland game show to the death. It's broadcasted to the rich and poor alike (the middle class having been long since annihilated), although it's the rich, in their Fiddler's Green world apart that fuel this entertainment death machine.
Two youths from each of the twelve districts that now comprise North America are randomly selected to fight; only one will survive. Before the Games, it appears Katniss might have feelings for one boy, but then during the Games, she develops an attachment for another. But never mind that; there's no romance to speak of in this film. We'll get there in sequels, I'm sure, but this time around, it's all about kill-or-be-killed while not wanting to be a killer. The Games and all their media culture trappings (play the crowd for popularity and corporate sponsorship - it might just save your life!) are sick, but being the modern life metaphor that it is, Katniss slowly realizes that she must play along, or die. On TV.
Find a kid who actually reads, and odds are the cited favorite book will be Suzanne Collins' 26-million bestselling source novel. Like "Harry Potter" before it, "The Hunger Games" is of that rare mold that transcends its niche, and enraptures the older set as well. The sheer passion of the rabid fan base has pre-destined the film adaptation for all manner of success. Personally, having no experience or even general knowledge of "The Hunger Games" prior to the screening, I had no horse in this race. I had no opinion on the validity of the casting (although that is one impressive cast!), no emotional tether to Collins' world, and no negative assertion that this could be the next "Twilight", and therefore must be slain. I was, as always, simply hoping for a good movie. And I got one.
That's not to say the film is without nits to pick. Just as the crux of the tale is the cruel dichotomy of the haves and the have-nots, so too the film itself is split. Split not just between two differing status worlds, but also tonally and visually. Director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") is right at home staging and executing the squalor and filth of our heroine's District Twelve - a poor coal mining society where the valley was never green and the exhausted Molly Maguires trudge to and from the mines, day in and day out. Equally competent is the "concentration camp" sequence, in which Katniss is made to play the Game. Competent, that is, until Elizabeth Banks as the pink-adorned plasicine Effie Trinket steps out onto the frigid grey stage, hamming it up with doting arrogance. Trinket is one of many from the day-glo wealthy side of the tracks, all of whom, appearing like Gilliam-ized extras in a live action Dr. Seuss movie, register as over the top at best, distractingly wrong at worst. Effie Trinket's presence on that stage is jarring, as though she belongs in a different movie. I suspect that this can be chalked up to Ross and company staying too close to the novel, where concepts that function perfectly well in the mind, but don't manage well when actualized on screen.
This raises the issue of the rigid state of adaptation in today's multiplexes. Throughout the golden age of Hollywood, moguls thought nothing of optioning a popular book, then tossing out everything but the title, setting, and a few character names for the film version. Compared to today's assumed discipline of overt source material reverence, serving the fans first and foremost, that sounds like some form of literary sacrilege. But fact of the matter is, a lot of great movies - too numerous to list - came out of that way of doing things. I can't help but suspecting that by being so intensely reverent to source material, we're actually losing something.
Before "The Hunger Games" even opened, there's been protests from one side that it's too violent for it's target audience, pushing the boundaries of its U.S. PG-13 rating, while the other side condemns the film for being only
PG-13, and therefore not gory enough. For my money, the whole question of violence is a non-issue here, as Ross is successful in communicating the sadistic savagery inherent in the proceedings without ever crossing any established lines. In a case like this - a big-time tent pole release and franchise igniter - the lines are there for a reason. The reasons may not be agreeable to all, but Ross did a fine job upholding his end of the bargain, as brutality is communicated in short, shaky spurts; an impressionistic victory. I wouldn't wish a day in a real life version of Ross' Hunger Games on my worst enemies' children, I'll tell you that.
Ross and Lionsgate have gone all out, somehow wrangling the coolest cast and crew possible. There's almost too much dignity and high-end talent buzzing through the veins of "The Hunger Games". It's a cinematic feast of riches in blockbuster clothing. Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss is catnip for filmgoers. In just a few short years, Lawrence has established herself as actress who elevates every project she's involved with ("X-Men: First Class", "Like Crazy", "The Beaver"). Although this is not her overall finest hour (see "Winter's Bone" for that), she carries this entire conceptual beast effortlessly from beginning to end. We never doubt her skills with a bow and arrow, either. Appearing in supporting roles are Woody Harrelson (with Nick Nolte's stringy 1980s hair), Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, and Donald Sutherland, among many more. None of these actors are utilized in a conventionally satisfying way, but if there weren't more to their stories in future installments, I doubt we'd be seeing them now. As it stands, their presence gives serious strength to the operation.
Sharp-eyed credit watchers will notice that Steven Soderbergh has a second unit director credit. I'm told that he came in for two days, covering a key riot scene that was shot over the course of two nights. The great T-Bone Burnett supervises the music, fostering an atmosphere of class and poignancy, raising the bar of the entire project several notches.
"The Hunger Games" isn't the smartest nor glossiest blockbuster to hit the scene, but it's as smart as it needs to be, often times more so. Ross' camera work and daring uses of sound throughout the film humanize the otherwise tall and rickety concept. One explosion puts us in the auditory mind of a nearby character as panic sets in and ears are ringing. Stemming from the novel, I suspect, are the myriad of contrived character names (a powerful, condescending/expository TV host is called Caesar Flickerman, for crying out loud) and on-the-nose concepts (would the rich actually be so brazen as to label their gladiatorial game show of the poor "The Hunger Games"? Sure, they're pitting kids against one another to the death for no good reason, but come on, no one likes to be reminded of the hunger problem).
Through all of that - whacked out Dr. Seuss wigs and all - are worthy ideas about today's notions of celebrity (You'll get picked to be featured - that's a given! The question is how to play the game.) and what young people today are facing from the world that is being handed to them. (The ultra-wealthy have tanked the economy and thus torpedoed the job market, but have left the higher education racket intact and pricier than ever. Hence, the establishment is all the more precarious, thrusting them into a new form of dog-eat-dog survival. I'm talking real stuff.) "The Hunger Games" is all about these ideas, putting them forth in an entertaining yet recognizable way that suits mass audiences. As a film, it does all of this well, even as it feels like a weighted adaptation of a novel. When it works, it really
works, both emotionally and intellectually. It's a big movie about ideas - ideas of the broad Here & Now - played out on a personal level for as many people as possible. This is the vital pulse of this work, and why it's not only a good movie, but maybe, just maybe, an important one.
- Jim Tudor