Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012)

In a dystopian future America, the nation has descended into a brutal dictatorship divided into twelve districts that exist to serve the needs of the decadent inhabitants of the Capitol.  As part of their programme of control, the government requires that each district send two children between the ages of twelve and 18, selected by lottery, to participate in a bloody last-man-standing gladiatorial game.  Kaitness volunteers to participate in the games to act as a substitute for her sister, who has been selected in the lottery, and it sent off to the Capitol where she is introduced to a bizarre contest that is half show business and half fight-to-the-death.

And with this, we see the first flaw with The Hunger Games, both book and film, the wearisome need to slog through a turgid mass of exposition before the first chapter even opens.  What's doubly annoying is that this overwrought back story props up a plot that is so mindbogglingly predictable the entire film is already unrolling in the mind during the establishing shots.  There isn't a single twist or surprise in the deck.  It's also staggeringly derivative.  If you've seen Rollerball, you've seen this.  If you've seen The Most Dangerous Game, The Naked Prey, Several Outer Limits or Star Trek or The Incredible Hulk episodes, The Year of the Sex Olympics, the... you get the idea.  This trail has been trod so many times it makes Watling Street look like a goat path.  The only difference here is that the prey are children (a premise that is, quite frankly, sick. And this is a series aimed at teenagers!) and our protagonist is that equally overused cliche, Action GirlTM.

This isn't a total waste of time as a film.  Though the male and female leads are hopelessly miscast, they still do a good job and deliver decent performances and Stanley Tucci steals the show every time he's on screen–and not just because of his blue hair.  The look of the film is very good with sets and costumes that serve their purposes well and the over all design of this world is consistent.

The real problem with The Hunger Games is with director Gary Ross.  This is a man who obviously does not trust his script, his actors or anything else in the production, so he resorts to relentless cinematic gimmickry to try to salvage what he sees as substandard material.  His overuse of shaky camera work and extreme close ups is not only confusing, it is literally nauseating to the point where I had to shut my eyes several times to hold down my popcorn.  The action sequences are confused jumbles without choreography, the pacing is uneven and what  little sense of tension or chemistry between the principals is quickly evaporated under his hand.  Worse, Ross's scenes are usually nothing but an endless collection of reaction shots and he has no idea of how to use dialogue to move the plot forward.  The worst is that he never gives us any impression that any thought is behind any character's action; as if Katniss et al are running on anything other than feelings.

I will confess at this point that I'm no fan of the Hunger Games series.  I dislike coming of age films because directors imagine that they're easy when they are, in fact, extremely difficult to do.  You not only have to deal with a teenage protagonist, but you must also show the man within the boy or, in this case, the woman within the girl, and very few films can manage that.  Certainly this one doesn't.  The basic plot lacks the elements of dramatic tension.  There is no ticking clock, no fighting for a higher cause, no nothing.  It is simply an open ended fight for survival and nothing else.  To add insult to injury, things actually get easier for Kaitness when they should get harder.

There isn't even the redeeming quality of rebellion.  You never get the sense that Kaitness thinks that the system she lives under is wrong, only that she's caught at the sharp end.  In fact, the end is a complete sell out (I know, "spoilers") as Kaitness and her boyfriend happily smile for the cameras before heading home in triumph.  My wife says that this changes in the next film, which follows the later books.  But, as  I've said to more than one director while doing script rewrites, I don't give a toss about the next film, it's this one I'm dealing with.

We've come a long way from earlier sports sci fi films highlighting the dogged determination to prevail despite facing a system that is rigged to ensure the hero's failure.  Let's look at the Hunger Games circa 1975:

How a dystopian sports film should end.

1 comment:

  1. Time to register a slight difference of opinion here; I thought that The Hunger Games was very well done.

    Okay ultimately this is just a difference of opinion e.g. I thought that Jennifer Lawernce was brilliant as Katniss; and yes, she is an Action Girl and I do agree that “The Action Girl” is turning into a cliché, but in Katniss’ case it’s a status with a plausible background; Katniss is someone who for several years has defied the rules and relied on her woodcraft, and her marksmanship to, literally, keep her family from starving.

    I do agree with you though that the film looked great and Stanley Tucci was brilliant; the perfect talk show host to children about to be used as gladiators. –shudder-

    And I also agree that idea of using children as gladiators was pretty sick. However there is a difference between making a movie about something sick, and making a sick movie. And IMNSHO THG stays on the right side of this line.

    Agreeing, and disagreeing, with you here, I did feel the film could have been shorter without losing anything, yet I felt that the novel manage to introduce Katniss and her world in just few pages.

    Your review mentioned the fight scenes being “confused.” I think this was deliberate to keep the level of depiction of the violence, involving kids, to non-graphic levels while still giving the impression it was pretty nasty.

    Btw, and going OT here, kids, children, teens and young adults; what’s the difference? These days the distinctions seem a little vague.

    And another btw, apparently the idea of having children sent as tributes to a victor goes back to legend of Theseus. And I agree that THG does remind me a lot of stuff like “Battle Royale”, “The Running Man” and even a Strontium Dog story in 2000AD, but I still felt that THG had its own take on this scenario.

    Okay so far this all JIMHO and stuff like that, this is where I going to argue an objective point; there is rebellion.

    We see riots breakout in Rue’s home district, triggered by Katniss’ kindness to Rue. And her kindness, in the book, was specifically raising two-fingers to the Capitol. (An appropriate metaphor for an archer I think.) However if her motivations are unclear in the film, then this is a weakness in the film.

    Yes, Katniss, and everyone else, does seem to accept the status quo. I wondered if this was subtlety on the part of the movie (Hollywood and subtle????!!!!) that this had been going on for so long that it had become accepted because “It’s the way it is and the way it’s always been.” Or possibly it was implying that rebellion had been tried and punished to such an incredibly severe level, that giving up a youth and a maiden each year was seen as the lesser evil. And a cruel twist, which I can’t remember was mentioned in the movie, was that the victor won concessions for their district.

    However I do feel that the final actions by Katniss in the arena were a rebellion. She was refusing to play by the Capitol’s rules, even if it cost her life, and if her actions could be interpreted in different ways, well this is an example of the film being true to the book, even Katniss was uncertain of her own motives.

    Well this has been a rather long, “I beg to differ,” but I hope it’s been entertaining, and, meanwhile keep on blogging. :-)