A film review by Craig J. Koban April 3, 2012


2012, PG-13, 142 mins.


Katniss: Jennifer Lawrence / Peeta: Josh Hutcherson / Gale: Liam Hemsworth / Effie: Elizabeth Banks / Haymitch: Woody Harrelson / Cinna: Lenny Kravitz / Seneca:  Wes Bentley

Directed by Gary Ross / Written by Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray.

A once great nation turned into a post-apocalyptic hellscape.  A totalitarian government that oppressively rules over its impoverished denizens with a cold and heartless detachment.  A gladiatorial death match contest featuring humanity's downtrodden that serves as the entertainment-opiate for the upper class masses.  And at the epicenter of all of this is a hero of singular determination that rises from humble beginnings to become the champion of her people. 

If all of this sounds like very, very familiar material to you that's as old as the sci-fi genre itself while watching THE HUNGER GAMES, then you're not alone.  The film - helmed by PLEASANTVILLE and SEABISCUIT director Gary Ross, based on the massively popular 2008 young adult sci-fi novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins - takes place in an unspecified time in the distant future when what was once North America has become known as Panem, an Orwellian regime that has been divided into 13 districts that are all ruled over by the central "Capital".  We learn that the districts once rebelled decades in the past, but were easily crushed by the iron fist rule of the Capital.  

As part of an ever-lasting peace settlement, the remaining districts that were left unscathed after the uprising were forced to participate in yearly “Hunger Games”, where young people between the ages of 12-18 are selected by lottery to participate in a battle to the death reality show that is mandated viewing for all citizens.  During what’s known as “the Reaping” two tributes (one girl and one boy) are chosen from each of the remaining twelve districts.  In order to win the contest 23 adolescents must be killed, leaving only one alive and standing. 

During the 74th annual lottery selection, a young 12-year-old girl named Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected from District 12 to participate, but her 16-year-old sister, Katniss (WINTER'S BONE's marvelous Jennifer Lawrence) can't bare the thought of her younger and more innocent sibling facing what will be most certain death.  Like a true selfless heroine, Katniss volunteers to serve as tribute in Primrose’s place.  From there she is accompanied on her journey to the Capital by the male tribute, Peeta – not to be confused with P.E.T.A. - (Josh Hutcherson, the very fine young actor from THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT and BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA) and when they arrive they are trained by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former games survivor, and are given image makeovers from Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (the more recognizable Lenny Kravitz).  It seems that the people of the Capital like their young victims being served up to the slaughter to be approachable, likeable, well groomed, and camera and TV-ready.

Katniss is initially lukewarm to the idea of making over her image to appease the blood-thirsty Capitalites, but she begins to slowly understand that part of her ability to potentially survive the games unscathed is to become a fan favorite beforehand, which will lead to sponsorship that could pay off well while in the deadly contest.  When Katniss, Peeta, and the 21 other tributes are finally unleashed in the winner-take-all battle of ultimate survival, both Katniss and Peeta make calculated choices to avoid the initial savagery of the games in order to secure their existence.  When things become dire, though, Katniss decides to enhance her stature with the viewers and feigns a romance with Peeta (who has secretly loved her for years), but when she begins to have genuine feelings for her fellow tribute, unavoidable sensations of dread creep in: after all, in order for her to win, she must kill her new love. 

THE HUNGER GAMES does many things right, like the manner that it compellingly reverses the typical gender roles for action-heavy sci-fi films like this (Katniss is clearly the hero of the piece, whereas Peeta is the damsel, so to speak, that needs saving and protection).  The actual build-up to the games in question is also genuinely suspenseful, not to mention that we get an intriguing juxtaposition between the Capitol and district life.  The emotional, physical, and economical miseries of the districts – made up of bombed-out and cheaply rebuilt villages that could have been discarded set pieces from THE ROAD - is sharply contrasted with the sickening and flamboyant decadence of the Capital's elitist citizens.  The Capital is like a metropolis laden with an upper ruling class that gorges on rampant and excessive materialism and disturbingly feeds off of the suffering of the district people, both in and out of the games.



The performances themselves are strong from the eclectic and well-assembled cast.  Particularly memorable is Harrelson's turn as his frequently inebriated ex-Hunger Games combatant who manages to be a mentor as well as a voice of reason to his new tributes.  I also liked Banks as Effie, the PR lady, a woman so decked out in mind-blowing colors, grandiose wigs, and caked-on makeup that she would make Lady Gaga envious.  Stanley Tucci appears as the TV host, of sorts, of the games, who uses his slicked back mane of blue-dyed hair and lecherous, pearly-white grin to fanatically and enthusiastically build up viewer interest in the games with the dutiful zeal of a circus ring master.  His faux-congeniality with the tributes is arguably the film’s most creepily sinister element. 

Then, of course, there is Lawrence herself as Katniss, and even though she is perhaps far too old to play a convincing 16-year-old, the former Oscar nominee gives this film its searing heart, soul, and dignity amidst all of its corrupt chaos.  Lawrence coveys a Katniss that’s an elegant beauty and a backwoods-like tomboy that’s fuelled by her own inner drive, admirable fearlessness (especially considering what she is forced to endure), and physical abilities (she’s a futuristic feminist-empowered Robin Hood with a bow and arrow).  Lawrence is just the right type of young actress to showcase Katniss as a young hero of susceptibility and authority; she emotionally grounds the film through and through.  It's also refreshing to see a female hero that's not totally reliant on anyone else but herself to make it out of dire and anxiety-plagued circumstances.  Bella in the TWILIGHT films was an obnoxious and flirtatious tease as far as role models go, but Katniss is the real deal as a worthy figure of young female viewers' hero worship.

Yet, THE HUNGER GAMES falters from a standpoint of thematic and narrative innovation.  Deep down, the overall premise here has been done time and time again (aspects of the film’s reality TV obsession can be seen in THE TRUMAN SHOW and THE RUNNING MAN; its Big Brother-inspired and government-from-hell is right out of 1984; and its underlining concept of young people being forced into live-or-die government sponsored battles bares a startling similarity to BATTLE ROYALE).  The script itself is also pedestrian when it comes to the romance in the film between Katniss and Peeta, which feels both tacked on and stilted in ways that made TWILIGHT borderline unendurable at times (the latter film series went out of its way, though, to be a romance melodrama, but THE HUNGER GAMES does not really require this aspect).  Furthermore, THE HUNGER GAMES offers up assembly-line villains in the form of simplistically evil tributes that makes the plight and requirement of Katniss to kill them in the games that much more conveniently trouble-free.  The film could have been much more interesting if, say, all of the tributes were frightened and uneasy individuals that did not want to murder each other. 

Gary Ross is not an action director, which is abundantly clear through most of THE HUNGER GAMES.  When he is not rendering district life with rough and loose camera work – leaving very few required scenes of visual stillness - that becomes more glaringly distracting by the minute, he then captures the chaotic violence and frantic mayhem of the games’ battles with a hyperactive shaky cam aesthetic that visually devolves the film into borderline incomprehensibility.  Spastically moving the camera and editing sequences without much care as to pacing, fluidity, and coherence often underlines a novice director’s lack of competence with laying out the action to generate suspense, but Ross is no rookie here.  The only other rationale for these headache-inducing choices was to perhaps maintain the film’s PG-13 rating: when you can’t make heads or tails of what’s happening on screen, it becomes easy for the violence and carnage to be hidden as well.  Nonetheless, I'm sick to death of this technique.  Note to all action directors: KEEP. THE. CAMERA. STILL.

Lastly, there is the central irony and, in many ways, hypocrisy of THE HUNGER GAMES itself.  The film and its source material are meant to be pointed commentaries and criticisms on omnipotent governments that influence and rule over its audiences with its organized mass murder sprees masquerading as a reality TV game show; it wants us to find its forced teen-on-teen savagery as distasteful and depraved.  Yet, THE HUNGER GAMES as a film wants us - especially during its long sections during the games itself (this film is far too long at 142 minutes) - to be taken in with its orchestrated pandemonium that has kids as young as twelve being served up for the bone mashing and artery spewing slaughter.  The film becomes almost a contradiction of itself in the process.

Yet, it's not a film without merit: Lawrence imbues it with a sincere and genuine heartbeat and gives us a credible and likeable screen heroine in a teen-centric romantic fantasy that’s not of the Kristen Stewart pout-and-furrow-her-brow-endlessly school of acting that dominated TWILIGHT (sorry, but comparisons between the two franchises seems unavoidable).  That, and THE HUNGER GAMES captures its class disparity with darkly satiric and proficient strokes.  I just wished that the film was less compelled by its perfunctory teen romance and predictable plot machinations and instead put more emphasis on being thoughtful and contemplative with its tributes, all of whom are being forced against their will into impossibly stressful situations (many of these tributes seem far too relaxed during their pre-game preparations than they should be considering their insanely high odds of not making it out alive).   As far as blockbuster event films go, THE HUNGER GAMES should appease its legion of ravenous, die-hard literary fans, but for the rest of us agnostic viewers, it’s more of a middling example of speculative science fiction at best.      

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