The Hunger Games

★★★☆☆
The Hunger Games

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Announcing the backlash. Like 2008′s surprise smash Slumdog Millionaire, it’s going to be difficult to get away with describing The Hunger Games with phrases like “it was alright”, “not that bad”, “just okay”, or “better than Twilight, at least”. This is a film with a fervent fan-base from the start, as the movie is based off of the best-selling book series which only became more best-selling as the film’s release date neared. In its first weekend, the movie had the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel. In the screening I saw on opening night, the audience cheered when the title appeared on the screen… as part of a sentence in an initial block of scene-setting text. It’s still early, but there will come a day soon where you will have to decide which side you’re on: do you love or do you hate The Hunger Games?

Personally, I hated it. Or rather, I thought it was entertaining but light. Perhaps upon additional viewings, I will learn to loathe the film.

In truth, I was fully prepared to crush the movie in my review based on the disorienting camerawork in early scenes. We are introduced to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone) in her homeland of District 12. Katniss lives in a dystopian land where the government runs a Gladiator-style competition as penance for a long ago civil war. The rules call for two children between the ages of 12 and 18, one male and one female, to be offered as tribute and forced to battle to the death as a brutally symbolic recreation of the past Treason. In this world, the children really are punished for the sins of the father. The primary industry of District 12 is coal-mining, which means that the population dresses in drab colors and lives in near-poverty as a rule. Because the characters’ dress and the dark hues of the setting apparently are not enough to differentiate District 12 from the opulence of Coruscant District 1, the seat of government and the most wackily futuristic of the dozen Districts, the film opens with a distractingly shaky handheld camera documenting the action. Even when Katniss is doing something as simple as, say, sitting in the grass with her boyfriend, the camera is jostling around maniacally. I found myself preparing zingers like “The camerawork makes Michael Bay look like Terrence Malick”, but once the action moved to District 1 and the camera image grew calm at last, it became clear that all that awful opening malarkey was done intentionally. It’s mostly subdued from this point forward, though once the kids start killing one another the shaking begins anew. The final action sequence in particular is – let’s call a spade a spade – entirely incomprehensible because of this habit.

I’m really embracing the hatred, ain’t I?

Don’t get me wrong, there really is a very interesting story within The Hunger Games. It is not the one that Katniss is living out, though. She is the film’s main character, thrown into a virtual cage and pitted against her peers in a fatal fight, but her story is surprisingly sanitized and uncompelling. There are precious few memorable or iconic sequences in her struggle for survival, and too many under-developed asides. I have to assume this is a product of an urge to remain somewhat faithful to the book, but an encounter with tracker-jackers (genetically engineered wasps whose venom causes hallucination) goes nowhere and a tertiary character named Rue enters and exits the film while doing little to justify her existence at all. A great deal of energy is spent in an attempt to destroy a cache of food items so that the other combatants will not have any advantages, but then the absence of food plays no part in the story’s conclusion. District 12′s male tribute, named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right) is shown to have absurd camouflage skills which apparently do not even require access to face paint, but this is only brought up again as a one-off joke. Katniss also has a tepid romantic triangle going on with her boyfriend back home and Peeta, but this is not fleshed out much beyond cuts to her home-boy looking jealous and rage-filled. I have to assume that future installments in the franchise (the books form a trilogy) will do more to breathe life into this subplot, but that doesn’t excuse this film’s impersonality. And I haven’t even touched on the PG-rated murder scenes, a choice that makes the film accessible to a wider audience but one which does more to lessen the intensity of the conflict than anything.

Wow, maybe I really did hate this movie.

No, wait, I remember what I was trying to say: the most interesting character in the film is television personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). I’ll admit, I may be reaching a bit when I say that but what I’m really trying to get at is something far greater than any one character. The most exciting thing about The Hunger Games is its politics, the world that its adults live in. District 12′s tributes are trained to fight by a mentor that has been assigned to them, a jaded survivor of a prior year’s games. This man is Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and instead of teaching the children how to handle weaponry he coaches them on far more useful skills: how to make people like you. Success in the games depends upon sponsorship – advertisers seek to associate themselves with the most popular combatants, and in turn parachute in supplies on occasion. This aspect of the games, though initially talked up, is given short shrift in the long run – another unfortunate result of trying to include too many half-formed ideas.

But the economics of The Hunger Games is intriguing. Not so much the income disparity between Districts 1 and 12, which is real-enough-to-life yet too easily comparable to any time or place in history. I’m talking instead about the fact that advertisers¬† readily put money into an acknowledged game of murder, that it is broadcast on television, that men caked in make-up interview the tributes as though they are celebrities. That these games exist and have been put on for so long without interruption despite most citizens’ unease about them is the most exciting concept here. There’s a clear level of corruption in the government (isn’t there always?) whose reach extends to the media, certainly, but leaves this viewer wondering just how entrenched the totalitarian regime actually is. The movie hints at an eventual revolution; having not read the books, I can only speculate that future entries in the film series will bring this aspect of its universe into greater focus.

So perhaps this first film should not be read as being about the game itself, not about who kills who or which traps the kids must face. Instead, maybe the movie is readying its viewers for the next phase: exhibiting Katniss’ physical stamina and cunning, her ability to command a crowd, the government’s naive sense of security. There may be a war coming, but as evidenced by the way that Katniss and Peeta energized the crowds simply by wearing a cape of false fire, the hearts and minds of the dozen districts will be won through rhetoric and showmanship rather than brute force.

In the end, I don’t think that I can really recommend The Hunger Games on its own. But I am excited to find out how serious the story may grow. It’s definitely a story of growth – that alone is entrancing.

8 Responses to “The Hunger Games”

  1. Ina says:

    Loved the simplicity of the books.. Looking forward to seeing the movie.
    Enjoyed your review and would like you to read the books and re-review..

  2. Rick says:

    Josh:
    I like your reviews but sometimes I think your backdrop is one remiss of the reality of the times the story actually exists. Your point of reference is an elaborate lifestyle of 2012. Not necessarily the reality for the time or situation of this story. The “handheld” camera would be proper for the setting of this movie.
    Keep up the good work…but you got to get intothe setting buddy…appreciate your efforts.
    Rick

    • Josh Glasgow says:

      Hey Rick, thanks for the comment. I appreciate your thoughtful response. If I’m understanding you correctly, I think you’re right that my point of reference is necessarily going to be the experiences I have had and the life I am currently living, in 2012. That said, I’m not entirely clear on how that affects my reading of the film, other than maybe because I didn’t seem to feel the dread/helplessness that permeates the world of Panem – a lack which I tend to ascribe as the movie’s failing rather than my own.

      Even so, I don’t think this justifies the camera style in the opening sequence/action sequences. It seems clear that it was used as a device to signal the difference between the worlds of District 1 and 12, but I still feel that that had already been accomplished in other, less distracting ways.

      Definitely interested in getting further insight on your take, though.

  3. Julie says:

    Why don’t you pick up a camera and make a movie yourself?

    Instead of attacking those who do?

    Criticism never lasts – movies will.

    I can’t remember a single article of Roger Ebert’s or the guy from the Today Show.

    You think you have power, but in the end it’s like watching a homeless person pontificating – you feel sorry for them.

    • Josh Glasgow says:

      I guess I do feel like I have power. I have the power to write down my thoughts about movies that I see and discuss those thoughts with others who have similar interests.

  4. Nathan says:

    There are several things to discuss here.

    First, I’d like to state that I haven’t seen this film, or read any of the books.

    Second, in response to power/criticism discussion, criticisms do last and everyone on the Internet has power. In this digital age that we live in everyone is a critic and everyone has the power to make it public without feeling shy or shameful. That is the beauty of how movies can be made or broken before they are even released. We no longer have to read our local critics or Roger Ebert or that guy from the Today Show – because we all have a voice. Discussions can be held in a virtual environment of people who all have opinions. There will always be people of differing opinions, but that is what makes it great. Our experience can transcend from having to wait and discuss at our local water cooler the next day, to being able to satisfy our urge to express ourselves instantly, and much more publicly, before we even leave the theater. That is powerful. Making a film isn’t as simple as picking up a camera, but being a critic, whether of films, people who write about films, or people who comment on reviews written about films, only requires a pen/keyboard and an opinion.

    Finally, I cannot really partake in the setting or “handheld” directing discussion in direct correlation to this film, but I do think there is definitely a connection between the two. I think if a film is successful at creating an environment there has to be an almost flawlessness in how the directing style compliments the film’s setting. The “hand held” technique is used in many films and, in my opinion, either becomes distracting or integral to capturing the setting. Take, for example, Children of Men. The most memorable scenes in this film are captured with a “handheld” style. Alfonso Cuar√≥n’s flawlessness in his direction allows for tension and suspension of disbelief throughout the entirety of the film. This is the way we connect with the film and its setting/characters/plot/everything.

    I’m curious of both Josh and Rick’s opinion of how these two dystopian settings and “handheld” styles compare. Is one more successful than the other? Are they even comparable?

    Thanks

    • Josh Glasgow says:

      Nathan, thanks so much for your comment. You’ve explained your thoughts regarding the shifting role of criticism with great eloquence – I couldn’t have said it better myself. There are so many different types of criticism and the ease with which any person can take part is indeed something to celebrate.

      As for this “handheld” style, again, you’re right that it can add much to the experience when done well. Cuaron’s film is a great comparison to make because the way that the camera’s movement changes is done fluidly so that the alteration is almost imperceptible. Not so with “Hunger Games”, which clearly delineates the tone of different scenes by reverting to this convention (especially during action sequences). Once again, I understand that this was a conscious decision and it’s clear to me why the choice was made… but I still feel that it was unnecessary and indeed does take the viewer (or this viewer, at least) out of the film.

  5. kelsey says:

    I would have to disagree with your thoughts on the hunger games , even though the hunger games aren’t to everyones’ taste but they are brilliant , yes okay everyone is entitled to their opinion but a don’t think yours was fair because all you did was slag the hunger games off , you should have watched a trailer to see if you would like to watch it first.

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