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.