The Hunger Games
Directed by: Gary Ross Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth Running Time: 2 hrs 22 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: March 23, 2012
PLOT: A coal miner's daughter (Lawrence) and a baker's son (Hutcherson) are chosen by their post-war government to participate in the annual "Hunger Games," in which they must fight to the death against 22 other teenagers on television.
WHO'S IT FOR?: If you've read the books, then you're already in line (for a second viewing, probably). Those curious about this franchise should consider watching it, especially if they're interested in dialogue-driven dramas and riveting, edgy action sequences. As for the rating, anyone who knows anything about The Hunger Games should know that this doesn't lend itself towards light material - this is one of the darker "PG-13" films to be released in a long time. Parents, don't overlook that.
EXPECTATIONS: As an outsider to The Hunger Games, I abstained from trailers as much as possible, and even any bit of information about the franchise's premise. I had no idea what to expect, but with the leading presence of Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence and the talented Josh Hutcherson, the odds felt to be in this film's favor.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen: It's difficult not to praise Katniss simply on the grounds of being an excellent role model - she's the type of fictional hero we should be giving our focus to. She's self-sufficient yet selfless, and on top of that she's really, really brave despite her shyness. She doesn't need others to fulfill her confidence. Her character might speak first and foremost to tomboys who read in trees while visiting their grandparents, but especially with a performance like Lawrence's, we're all able to appreciate Katniss. Lawrence's serious dedication to the dramatics of this character who make Katniss' journey down the messianic roads of past heroes and heroines feel new. Score: 8
Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mallark: His dorky blonde haircut suggests pipsqueak-ness, but Peeta is actually an embodiment of the reality we would feel if forced into Hunger Games participation. He may not be as physically strong as Katniss, but Hutcherson prevents Peeta from being an insignificant character - the reversed damsel in distress. The dorkiest aspect about Peeta is that his cake-painting skills somehow make him a make-up wizard. Score: 6
Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy: His role comes off as Diet Harrelson, but his expected charisma seems to fit well with this character. Haymitch is the slushy mentor to Katniss and Peeta, who offers bits of hard honesty in between swigs of anonymous liquor. It's laid-back guidance with an edge, which only seems a couple notches dialed down of "Crazy" from what we usually get out of Harrelson. Score: 7
Rest of Cast: Elizabeth Banks hams it up with colorful finesse as Effie Trinket, a curious figurehead who introduces us to the dystopian madness behind the Hunger Games, and then takes a back seat. Wes Bentley makes a solid return to the role of "young weirdo" as Seneca Crane, with his blistering bright eyes and sharp beard-cut. Stanley Tucci shows off his always underestimated charisma as the hammy TV host Caesar Flickerman, which would be notable even if this movie were not. Donald Sutherland makes brief appearances as President Snow (was he even elected?), and works a Corleone-vibe while tending to his garden and hatching evil plans. The weakest attribute of this strong cast might be Liam Hemsworth, who is given the tough job of having to be Katniss' back-home boyfriend. At least in this movie, Katniss having a significant other seems unimportant (and contradictory to her shy characteristics). Simply, Hemsworth isn't able to make much of a case as to why we should care about him, especially over Hutcherson's character Peeta. Hemsworth's character plants a curious question in our head, ("What if no one watches?"), and then becomes useless to the rest of this story. Score: 7
TALKING: With its opening text and sporadic mentions in conversation, the script does offer some explanation about these odd games, but it's not enough. More notably, this movie doesn't bog itself down with melodramatic moments. There isn't one cheesy line to be found in this movie, which seems to be like some sort of miracle for a film adapted from young adult literature. Score: 7
SIGHTS: A couple of sequences in the beginning of the movie involving Katniss hunting a deer are horrifically edited. These dizzying moments assault the viewer with its unnatural trigger finger to move from one shot to the next - something that made the rest of the movie feel technically uncertain. Thankfully, the editing improves when it most matters, which is during the second and third act. The violence in the movie is shown with jarring intensity, as we see on-screen acts of killing, sometimes with some spurts of blood. The Hunger Games accepts its barbaric nature, and acknowledges sudden death without making it feel exploitative. Score: 7
SOUNDS: Though the movie restrains itself from using popular tunes mid-film (a wise choice), three tracks from the Hunger Games soundtrack are effectively played during the credits. "Abraham's Daughter" by The Arcade Fire, with its singsong marching snare, and "Safe and Sound" by Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars, romantically compliment the somber film's folksy attitude. For all you fans of the Chemical Brothers, the eerie last moments of The Hunger Games do indeed borrow the track "Marissa Flashback" from their Hanna soundtrack. Score: 8
BEST SCENE: The first few minutes of the actual game are uncomfortably exciting. It's really jarring to see this PG-13 movie make no reservations about showing some ruthless teen slaughterin' right off the bat.
ENDING: I really love where this film chooses to cut itself off. The image of a "defeated" President Snow retreating to his quarters would have me desperate for a sequel, even if this wasn't already book one of a trilogy. Although it might drive me a little bonkers, I think I am going to hold off on reading the next book, and will just wait for the movie.
QUESTIONS: What other titles did all of these politicians consider before choosing "The Hunger Games"? Has any human being on this earth ever been named Katniss? Is this movie playing into some youthful zeitgeist involving teenage fascination with death and the apocalypse? Why not shoot at Katniss when you've got the arrows and posse power, instead of letting her hang out in that tree? How much of this movie's positive reception will be boosted by how much The Twilight Saga sucks? And of course, which scenes did second unit director Steven Soderbergh shoot? Perhaps it was the "tracker jammer" Easy Rider sequence?
REWATCHABILITY: The concept of priming teens for death was a bit overwhelming for my nerves in the first round, but maybe a second viewing will have a softer amount of tension. I am curious/worried if the film's heavy amount of dialogue will make this story feel slower when viewed for a second time.
The latest literary phenomena to cause mall riots and unfortunate cat names, The Hunger Games is one of the more "WTF?" uber-popular franchises in recent memory. Sure, it only imagines a future borne from our current TV schedule, but this first film is old school in two ways - its reliance on pages and pages of dialogue, and its barbarism, which is some straight-up coliseum stuff.
The first act-and-a-half feature a surprising amount of dialogue, but this wordiness is in good hands with actors like Lawrence, Hutcherson, or any of the other supporting cast who seem to be in their own battle for screen time. This movie has a striking sense of patience, and yet, it's never boring. (Of course, it helps that the movie doesn't fully answer the worry of "They kill teens, don't they?" until game time.) Never stopping to take an action break, the script creates a strong sense of character, and also dread. An iconic franchise hero is especially created with Katniss, who is given the same amount of care by Lawrence that the actress put into her Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone.
As for the games themselves, the movie plays well on our uncomfortable anticipation of disbelief that invisible storytelling lines will be crossed. Fight scenes are raw and rough for the viewer, and the movie's action is layered with tension. Throwing kids (especially innocent looking pre-teens) into the hands of death is dangerous territory, and The Hunger Games, possibly playing into a morbid "Generation 2012" zeitgeist, takes the content to the very edge of its rating, and potential. Compared to how franchises had worked before this, (remember the catastrophe of one death in a "Harry Potter" book?), this story isn't standing on the very edge of Moral Cliff, but doing a hand stand with one finger.
The Hunger Games is able to pull this edgy dance off by how it handles its conflict - with our hero Katniss, it's not a concept of carnage, but survival (it also helps that we hardly get to know anyone except for Katniss, Peeta, and a girl named Rue). There are natural causes out to kill the teen participants, and there are certain teens that become instantly unlikable when they identify the movie's "bullying" perspective. Katniss remains the self-sufficient outsider, who is not concerned with image or conformity. If a high school social structure is anything like The Hunger Games, (of which I feel such a similarity has to be obvious) then Katniss is the one who's trying to figure it out the most.
While the film is able to sell audiences on the idea of teen death matches, its description about the curious futuristic world in which such events are heavily promoted leaves much background to be desired. We don't get a large enough sense of the eleven other "districts," or even the citizens' moral standpoint on such games. Is it mostly the citizens of Capitol who excitedly embrace these games? As Chicago critic colleague Bill Stamets wisely said to me, "I want to know what's on the other Capitol TV channels."
This openness leaves some head-scratching about how people "need" these games. Sutherland's speech about how people "need" the hope inspired by the games doesn't cut it, especially when these government-funded activities are so ultimately destructive.
Looking beyond the scope of its strange popularity, The Hunger Games is a compelling drama led by well-written characters, performed by strong actors working in exciting environments. This might sound like typical praise, but its surprising to say such about a young adult novel, especially when such stories from the category eventually rely on floating cars or t-shirts ripped by muscles to stand out as special. The truly sparkling magic of the folksy and cold The Hunger Games could possibly be that it doesn't suck - at all.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10