The Hunger Games (2012) / Adventure-Sci Fi
MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images involving teens
Running time: 142 min.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Amanda Stenberg, Alexander Ludwig
Director: Gary Ross
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
Review published September 23, 2012
The Hunger Games is based on Suzanne Collins' bestselling young-adult novel of the same name. The futuristic storyline primarily revolves around 16-year-old girl Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence, X-Men First Class), who is the unlucky contestant, volunteering in place of her younger sister (Shields, Boyond the Blackboard), to compete in the 74th year of the titular games, which are a nationally televised tournament battle to the death involving two teenagers (dubbed, "Tributes") from each of the totalitarian country known as Panem's 12 districts. She isn't completely unprepared, as she spent a good part of her life learning how to hunt with bow and arrow with her friend Gale (Hemsworth, Knowing). She doesn't wish to kill or be killed, especially as her fellow contestant from the coal-mining District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson, Journey to the Center of the Earth), a boy who saved her through an act of kindness years before.
While the contestants go through a rigorous few days of combat training, they also are expected to put on a good show for the rapt audience. By comparison with its outer districts, the capital is all affluence on display, with residents strutting about like a parade of peacocks, putting on airs, while dining on the finest the nation has to offer. It is in this lavishness that the 24 kids will spend their time before entering the arena, fattened up like pigs before slaughter.
Jennifer Lawrence's performance is one of the main assets of this entertaining and often engaging adaptation, as she fits the role from a physical and emotional standpoint, without ever overplaying her part. She exudes the personality of a girl who had to learn to fend for herself, with an absent father, out-of-it mother, and young and innocent sister -- she had to keep the family going almost single-handedly. Her subtlety also contrasts with the more flamboyant turns by the adult leads, such as Stanley Tucci (What Just Happened), perpetual drunk Woody Harrelson (Friends with Benefits).
The downside of the film isn't so much the film's fault. Much of it feels eerily familiar to 2000's Battle Royale, which itself came from a popular book by Koushun Takami about a totalitarian future government putting kids together on a deserted island in order to kill each other until only one is left, while it plays on television for the mass audiences. The stories are similar, though the execution is very different, sufficiently enough to keep it from being an out-and-out rip-off. Also, the PG-13 status keeps the prurient aspects mostly at bay, unlike its Japanese counterpart, which pushed the depictions of violence far beyond.
If there's one more feeble aspect of the story it is its oversimplification of its main premise, which feels more like a spin off of The Running Man if meshed with TV's 'Survivor'. The film does manage to flesh out the rationale for the Hunger Games more than the book, but in both, its existence being a way to control the masses from further uprising, is a very farfetched premise at best. If anything, I would think it would make the sentiments of those who lose their children to near-certain death to actually want to overturn such a government even more. There is even a scene in which one of the districts begins to do just that, so it is a quandary at best, seeming like more exposition is warranted in order to kick the narrative up a notch to be something more than just passably entertaining. Had they made the viewing of such an egregiously sensationalized premise voluntary instead of mandatory, the erosion of relative value on life for the sake of simplistic, voyeuristic pleasure, it would have gone much further as a satire on modern entertainment, and also on how demoralizing an impact reality television has really made on our own society. Alas, at least in director Gary Ross's (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) adaptation, it is not to be.
Lack of adequate explanation also mars some of the film's more climactic scenes, especially as the powers-that-be utilize their technology to create actual living beings to put into the middle of the action. This is the point where one wonders why they even bother with the distastefulness of watching children kill other children and instead have the Game-Makers just dream up the most nightmarish monsters and dreadful obstacles to throw at the landscape whenever they wish to. It certainly would make for much more compelling viewing year after year, and without the overhead of upsetting families to the point of perpetual burgeoning unrest.
There is a subdued but ever-present love triangle, which may remind some of the Twilight series in its nature. It's a little bit clumsy in its presentation, and not as nuanced in terms of Katniss' reciprocal feelings, but the future entries promise to explore these things so they are impossible to ignore. But even if most of the other characterizations are shallow, Katniss' is well rounded enough that we can't always tell what's going on in her mind. Even if she appears to utter words of love, the nuance is provided that we wonder if she really means it.
Be forewarned: this film features shaky-cam techniques, and a lot of them, so if you're susceptible to motion sickness from camerawork that just doesn't stop for even a second, The Hunger Games could be quite an ordeal, especially as the film is nearly 2.5 hours long. Speaking of the length, it doesn't exactly overstay its welcome, but some judicious trimming could have gone a long way to reducing the overall pacing from occasionally suspenseful into something truly exciting.
The end of the film doesn't entirely go for satisfaction of completion, and to those expecting themes to hit home, it may feel a bit abrupt. There are two more books in the series to adapt (at the time of this film's making), and mostly it is a means to set up for the next entry. As it stands, it's a decent enough film based on a decent enough book, crafted, like its namesake games, to mollify the masses into rapt attention as characters we care not to see harmed are in harm's way repeatedly. It's a little prurient, to be sure, but an effective spectacle without the exploitative qualities that normally ruin dystopian satires.
-- Followed by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
©2012 Vince Leo