I’m very sorry everyone, but, well, you need to thank Twilight.

Rarely does Hollywood seem balanced by anything resembling karmic equilibrium, but, now and then, however briefly or unintentionally, the industry becomes guided by a just-world bias. Author Suzanne Collins’ complex dystopian trilogy about children fighting each other to death on TV could not be more dissimilar to Stephenie Meyer’s vampire smoochfest, but for all the surly tirades and punchlines Meyer has endured she did boost the field of female-oriented young adult literature to something of a trend — a culture wave Collins’ books benefited from. Ditto and then some on the Twilight film adaptations. Hollywood is filled with bottom-line cowards. Few greenlighters like taking risks, and those who do usually don’t last long. But nothing emboldens the spirit and blurs vision like two big dollar signs over your eyeballs. And the highest compliment I can give The Hunger Games adaptation is that midway through the film I thought to myself, “I can’t believe this fucking thing actually got made.”

Director Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games is not without its flaws, but for lovers of unconventional cinema it stands as something of a bewildering miracle that this Friday multiplexes in Nebraska are going to be showing a $100 million tentpole movie aimed at tweens in which small children get horribly murdered in a variety of grisly ways. And no one is spazzing out! Quite the opposite. This is one of the most anticipated movies of 2012. So – *looks at floor; fidgets* – thanks, Twilight.

As it was in Collins’ novel, The Hunger Games is set at an unidentified future date in the North American-ish nation of Panem, which is divided into a rigid class system with an affluent central Capital city that is supported by and lords over twelve districts. 70 years ago the districts united in rebellion against the Capital. And lost. Now, as penance and an on-going show of force, every year the Capital stages The Hunger Games, a televised event in which one boy and one girl (aged 12–18) from each district are selected by lottery to become “tributes” to the game — the “game” being battling, by any means, until only one tribute remains alive. In District 12, when Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) little sister is selected as tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Hunger Games.

I am a fan of what one might call the orchestrated breakdown subgenre, which I’d characterize as any movie about a regular person or regular people tossed into a manufactured scenario designed to break down the rules of society — be it a death sport game, as in Gymkata, or something abstract like Cube, or even something with no “ticking clock” element at all, like the Ray Liotta island-prison flick No Escape. Of course, the film that Hunger Games bears the most striking resemblance to is the influential Japanese extreme cinema classic, Battle Royale, which is also about a dystopian future where teenagers are forced to fight each other to the death for the dual purposes of social management and gladiatorial entertainment. But beyond this admittedly identical core conceit, Hunger Games and BR are not very similar. (I have not read Collins’ book, but from what I understand the screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray is extremely faithful, with the biggest alterations simply being the result of streamlining.)

Whereas BR was exploitation cinema that had little set-up, immediately throwing us into the gonzo gore and letting us glean out our heroes as the battle wages, Hunger Games is structured like a star-is-born story, tracking Katniss’ fish-out-of-water rise from obscurity to fame, leaving home, training and prepping for the big show. Deviating from normal orchestrated breakdown films, Hunger Games‘ most powerful creative tool is that everyone knows about the Hunger Games. It has been going on for 70 years. It is scary and it is fucked up, but our characters talk about it with a powerless complacency. This is just the way the world is. And this frees the plot up from the obvious story beats, as there is no mystery, no confusion, no figuring anything out, no we-gotta-get-out-of-here scheming. This means the entire story doesn’t have to deal with the Hunger Games itself. We can build up to it. This pre-game section of the film is where Ross (Seabiscuit) seems most at home, establishing relationships and building Collins’ world, and unsurprisingly this is the area of the movie that is the most successful. Ross and team ease us into the complicated premise rather effortlessly, cleverly using the televised run-up to the Games to get out a lot of the heavier exposition. But we also get a lot simply through story and character. The abject poverty that District 12 is kept in all comes from character. Katniss is dressed like a peasant. She reacts to receiving bread from her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) the same way you might if someone handed you a bottle of Cristal — “Is this real?” She must sneak past District 12’s borders to illegally hunt a deer with her trusty bow and arrow to get protein for her still-growing little sister. (Here the film also benefits in a way from Winter’s Bone, as Jennifer Lawrence is essentially reprising her role.) Then the old timey hicksville bubble is burst with a vengeance by the arrival of a flying ship carrying Effie Trinket (a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), who looks like a Lady Gaga misfire, clad in loud and garish clothing and thick kabuki-level make-up.

I’m sure Collins’ book goes into more detail on the look of the Capital residents – none of whom are quite as absurd as Effie, but who all look as if they’re competitors on a shitty hipster rock band reality show – but there is no need to in the film. The visual alone sells it. Just from the costumes and silly facial hair we know that the Capital is final-phase Rome, opulent and vulgar, complete with an allegorical Coliseum in which to watch slaves torn apart by exotic animals. Katniss getting swept up in the ways of the Capital is all very engrossing; hosed down, plucked, waxed, perfumed. The idea that the Capitalites think the residents of the Districts insufferably stink also goes a long way to paint the overall picture. To this end, the most interesting supporting character in the film is Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games champion and the only victor District 12 has ever had, who is assigned to mentor Katniss and District 12’s male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) — btw, these names all sound less retarded than they look written out, I swear. Two decades of living the high life in the Capital has made Haymitch look like everyone else, but inside he is still from District 12, an emotional conflict he drowns daily in copious amounts of booze and sarcastic comments. There are several important relationships that Katniss develops in the film, but her relationship with Haymitch is the most beneficial for both the character and for the film itself. In fact…

I so enjoyed the process of grooming Katniss for the Games – choosing her costumes, styling her personality, sending her on a talk show – that in an odd way, I never actually wanted the Games to start. This is why Hunger Games is a special property, and likely why such a gruesome concept has proven so palatable to all the normals out there. Collins came at her high-concept from a post-American Idol perspective, making Hunger Games as much a meditation on fame, branding and how to build a public persona as it is about people killing each other. It is the way that Katniss learns to play for the audience watching the Hunger Games that truly sets this apart from Battle Royale, as Katniss realizes that “playing the game” is more about gathering fans than it is about killing the other tributes. This adds layers to commonplace elements, such as her “romance” with Peeta, which Katniss artificially plays along with purely for Hunger Games story value.

Where Ross is less at home, and where the film starts to stumble, is once the game commences. None of the action is that exciting, and at times it feels almost like Ross is just trying to hurry through the game to reach the dramatic finale. Our group of tributes gets whittled down too fast, which makes the whole thing feel decidedly un-epic, when this is where the movie should have been firing on all cylinders. Within just a handful of scenes it seems as though we’re already in the final moments of the game. The second half of the film is also where Ross’ “show don’t tell” approach that worked so well in the beginning also stumbles. The Hunger Games’ producer, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), wants to keep things exciting and spicy, and will often interfere by inserting elements into the game, such as a sudden forest fire or bizarre hybrid animals. Yet, I never truly understood how these inserted elements worked. We see these inserted foes being digitally created from nothing, so they aren’t real, but they have the power to physically interact with the tributes, burning or killing them. I can roll with that, already familiar with the Star Trek: Next Generation holodeck. But it did pull me out of the film, as I had not gathered that the Capital was that futuristically advanced. I’m sure this was all explained in Collins’ book, but it is an element that I think should have been much less faithful to the source material. I would have left it out entirely actually. The idea that Crane drives Katniss from the outer rim of the playing field back towards the other tributes by attacking her with a forest fire sounds cool, but the way it comes off in the film it undermines the whole concept of the Hunger Games in a sense. I assume in the book the Games spreads over a long period of time, necessitating some meddling to keep things interesting for viewers. But in the movie it seems unnecessary. Doubly so when our tributes are attacked by strange dog creatures, briefly turning our man-vs-man story into a monster movie. Triply so when Peeta is revealed to have Rick Baker-esque make-up skills that he uses to paint himself like a rock so he can hide. Again, this may have all played wonderfully in the book, but Peeta’s make-up nonsense in particular doesn’t even serve a purpose, so it comes off as silly and too fantastical. (If this wasn’t in the book, then I have no clue what they were thinking.) The movie would have been better served to downplay these ultra-sci-fi ideas and keep things grounded. Kids killing kids is powerful shit as it is.

Ross also doesn’t stick the landing. The beat by beat events of the film’s climax and finale are great, but as with the game itself, these scenes feel rushed; an editor chasing a friendly runtime. I don’t want to hint at any spoilers, but one very dramatic moment in particular involving the climax of the Games gets driven through so fast you don’t even have time to process it before it gets undone. The ending should feel huge! Because there are huge implications at play. But it doesn’t. And I partially blame this on overconfidence. Everyone making this movie had to know it would perform well enough to make Collins’ second book. Like the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the film ends with the confident attitude that we’ll be back for more. Thus, it doesn’t feel like the ending of a movie so much as it feels like a TV cliffhanger. There is no emotional resolution whatsoever, just a tease of “But what will happen now???”

I want to end on a positive note, because this is a solid film and one that – despite my critique about overconfidence in its inevitable sequel – deserves to fully realize Collins’ trilogy.

That cast is great. I honestly never thought I’d enjoy Wes Bentley in a film, but I do here. His elaborate facial hair alone deserves praise. I don’t know how he reads in the book, but Woody Harrelson felt perfect for his role to me — the actor is great at roping you into a character whose external elements should be off-putting. I’ve been a fan of Josh Hutcherson since Zathura, and had been sad to see him passed over as Peter Parker in the Spider Man reboot, but it seems that was all for the best. This is a better series to be involved with, and Peeta is actually the most compelling character in the film, as his crush on Katniss is the driving force in the film’s twists and turns. It saddens me to think that Donald Sutherland, who plays the savvy and sinister president of Panem, is 76 and won’t be around forever, because Sutherland has beyond perfected being savvy and sinister — and that fucking voice! So good. And of course Jennifer Lawrence is ideal for her role, just as she was for Ree in Winter’s Bone; confident and strong on female terms (not just written as a man, like so many “tough girls” are).

Since this is a movie young people will want to see, I suppose I should address whether concerned parents should let their children actually see it. Well… kids kill other kids. With neck snapping, throat slitting, arrows, stabbing, bludgeoning. It is PG-13 so it isn’t that visually upsetting, but it is all there. It isn’t sensational though. The violence is not glorified. This isn’t a movie going for awesome kills. You would want your children to be upset by what they saw. So, in this sense, it is on you and what kind of art you want to engage your spawn with. I say — don’t be a pussy. Take ‘em.

Rating:
★★★☆☆

Out of a Possible 5 Stars


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