Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games - Theatrical Review


Release Date: March 23, 2012

What do you get when you mix Battle Royale, The Running Man, The Truman Show and a dash of the Twilight crowd together? Something that isn't quite as good as any of those...well, except for Twilight I guess.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 9:35 pm March 23, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 22 min
Studio: Lionsgate

Loves: Battle Royale, The Truman Show, The Running Man
Likes: Jennifer Lawrence, Dystopian futures
Neutral: Stealing from other films so blatantly and not doing them justice
Hates: Films manufactured for a certain age group at the cost of the narrative
Did you know?: The author of the novels claims ignorance as to the existence of Battle Royale

Films like this are why I started this blog and our podcast in the first place. Sure I can just run around telling everyone to avoid something or try to dispel its popularity by verbally bashing it as much as possible but its the written word that will hit home the most for many and allow me to dig into the details of what's actually wrong. The fact that I take the time to scribe my thoughts down on something I like is easy enough but when it comes to something like this, a beloved novel turned into a film and its rabid fan base who will love it despite all its glaring flaws and problems that doesn't quite reach that level it promised, that's when the power of the written word truly shines. The Hunger Games is a film with many issues ranging from its ill-conceived world to its directionless narrative but its one major flaw has almost nothing to do with the movie itself but more to do with those aforementioned fans. By loving something merely out of an affection for the source material it is derived from devalues other films that have gotten it right and that upsets me a little to be honest. I can't speak to the quality of the translation from novel to screen but if this is an accurate interpretation of what is in that book then I for one am glad I never decided to read it. I had no real expectations, all I wanted was an entertaining movie and by those standards I couldn't help but feel extremely disappointed by The Hunger Games, a film that will (and has) become a huge success no matter what I or anyone else has to say about it.

Set during an undisclosed future, we follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of district 12 as she leads her younger sister to the lottery which will determine who will be chosen to represent them in the 74th annual Hunger Games, an event put in place to quell an future wars between the opposing districts and their Capitol. Katniss is forced to volunteer for the role of the female tribute in order to prevent her sister from being taken away after having her number drawn. Along with the male tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) she is taken to the great Capitol where they will both engage in a battle to the death against the tributes picked from the other surrounding 11 districts where only one person may come out alive. Katniss has made a promise to both her sister and mother that she will do whatever it takes to win this years hunger games and she doesn't plan on letting them down.

Katniss and Peeta become the tributes of district 12.

It's safe to say at this point (four days after seeing the film) that it is quite possibly the biggest disappointment of the year for me so far. Not because I am a fan of the book (as stated before I have never read it), but because this was one of those rare moments where I let myself get caught up in the hype. When I first saw the trailer late last year it looked interesting. It wasn't exactly something I was looking forward to but it certainly peaked my interest enough that I knew I would see it when it did eventually come out. But then all the marketing began and a legion of fans along with their media counterparts in tow started making this a big deal all of a sudden. What first appeared to be a fairly modest film became a huge hit BEFORE it was even released. News shows started reporting on it and giving regular updates as to how ticket pre-sells were doing, we got news of people sleeping overnight for the midnight shows, it broke records for one of the biggest midnight screenings ever and there was even a largely positive critical response to it.

Other than fans of the novel I can't say exactly what has all those people, whomever they may be, so enthralled with the film but whatever it is I didn't see it. I blame a few things on my lack of enthusiasm towards the film. First of all is the hype machine really overplayed this one. It would be one thing if it were at least a good movie but it unfortunately just barely reaches the level of mediocrity needed to make it decent. Second is the striking resemblance to a number of other superior films, most notably the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale, a film that does a much better job at setting up its world, the rules of that world and has a better grasp of its much larger cast of characters. Third would have to be the extremely lazy plotting, for a film that lasts nearly two and a half hours it came off as feeling very underdeveloped and poorly realized. Don't get me wrong, it certainly gets some things right but most of the time I was sitting their trying to piece together in my head what the film decided not to tell me and that was a huge problem. Especially considering the fact that anything I concocted made very little sense when put up against the world of The Hunger Games. Let me explain.

Weird hair, weird clothes and acts strange...yep, this is the future alright.

Any regular readers of mine will know that I am a huge proponent of world building by which I mean the way a film (or any format) establishes the world in which our characters exist in. The usual formula is to convey the basic rules such as who is in charge, why they are in charge, what are they in charge of and ultimately what happens when the rules set by said people are disobeyed. The Hunger Games isn't interested in those little details that arguably are fairly petty in the grand scheme of things but are something that does wonders for lending credibility to the world we are being presented. This is even more an issue with any film or story that takes place in a future or alternative version of our world. It takes a whole lot more than dressing people up in strange clothes, coloring their hair and having them act out in bizarre manners to convince me I am seeing something from our supposed future.

I will give the film a little credit in the sense that it does provide a somewhat adequate landscape for the structure of its narrative. I never felt lost or confused which is a plus. We find out that there was a war involving a number of different parties (or districts) and that the resulting carnage almost brought an end to civilization as we know it. We are then informed about the methods to which any subsequent wars would be prevented which is where the hunger games comes into play. It is explained that each of the 12 outlining districts that surround the Capitol city, a place where only the rich and privileged reside, are charged to support it with whatever minerals or substances they have. The population of these districts are all in an extreme state of poverty though and rely heavily on the mercy of the Capitol city to continue to survive. The price for such a case of generosity is that each district must provide tributes, one female and one male child between the ages of 12 and 18 who will participate in the annual hunger games competition. To put it bluntly the people who live in these districts are basically slaves without the chains.

The tributes are treated like celebrities for the most part.

Seems pretty straight forward right? Yes it is. However, that set up automatically raises other questions that the film either doesn't want us to know or has no answers to. For instance, why children? Why do the tributes have to be children? Other than the film trying to appeal to a certain demographic why those particular ages? That one conceit is probably one of the most glaring in-your-face marketing moves I have ever seen and something that just rubs me the wrong way. Then you have the really hard questions such as how does the Capitol enforce this lottery? If one district decides not to participate then what happens? We are also told that every district is poverty stricken and must rely on Capitol support for rations but why can't these districts provide their own food? We see that there are barriers locking them into these districts (which are very easy to get through mind you) which leads to the belief that food distribution is controlled to some degree but why? Is there a lack of food and if so then why? If these districts were able to survive on their own would that upset the balance? Those are just some basic examples of questions that ran through my head while watching the film. The one part of the film that NEEDED to be explained however that wasn't were the actual hunger games itself.

Once again we get the bare minimum of explanations when it comes to the functionality of the games such as acquiring what the film calls "sponsors" who will supposedly help each tribute while they actually play the games. In what manner will they help? Other than mentioning healing items or providing water there isn't much told to us. We get to see their contributions during the game but don't ever get to see or understand why they are helping. The fact that the sponsors are repeatedly mentioned and never truly explained was an extreme annoyance for me and something that could have be alleviated with a simple scene showing a sponsor and what they actually do. Then you have the conceit that this is not only a game to help prevent war but also a highly rated television show. Who benefits from this being televised? We are told at the outset that if no one would watch the show then it will all most likely just go away due to a lack of interest...what the hell? Let me get this straight, these games were created to help subside a war but if people stop tuning in it will end all of a sudden? I haven't even mentioned the promotional aspects to the game where each district has what basically amounts to an agent who is responsible for giving them tips on how to survive the games but their jobs seem more about making them look good to acquire more sponsorship than it is about giving life saving tips, the main tip of which is to make friends...what?

Katniss proves her worth with a bow and arrow.

We see the tributes interviewed on a talk show, put in front of what I am guessing are potential sponsors to show off their stuff and later be rated appropriately which feeds into the odds when placing bets on them. My biggest question to all of this is what does any of this matter? It all may seem important at first but once the "games" start then you quickly discover that neither the kids nor us the audience really know anything about this game other than they all must kill each other and that's it. Instead of getting any explanation to the rules of the game we get all these useless moments of people being instructed on how to dress nicely, make friends and train with weapons...IN FRONT OF ONE ANOTHER. Tell me, if you were getting ready to go out and kill a bunch of people to survive would you actually want THOSE SAME PEOPLE in the same room with you? Speaking of that, why is there such a camaraderie amongst the two tributes of each district? They have to kill each other to do they stay friends again exactly? It is something touched upon in a couple of scenes here and there but never truly explored in any meaningful way. Without a doubt the biggest stumbling block to this entire movie is how it handles the lead up to the competition and the eventual game itself.

First of all there are no "games" in a plural sense. There is only one game and a very thinly veiled one at that. Put aside for a second that the moment the game starts we have no idea what is going on. Instead focus on the fact that we really don't know any of these tributes other than the two from district 12 when this thing starts. I will afford one direct comparison to Battle Royale for this which is how that film was able to convey and introduce us to almost DOUBLE the number of characters this one has in a far more condensed and clever way. The Hunger Games fails miserably at this and decides to put the focus squarely on Katniss. Maybe the film was always supposed to be about her and I am just forcing my expectations upon it but there are moments that pop up where it felt like we were supposed to care for certain characters that we never truly got to know. How am I supposed to react to a character dying where the film treats the death as some sort of great tragedy beyond the inherent issue of the child's age, yet I never knew them enough to care? Deaths in The Hunger Games are the equivalent of seeing a dead child you don't personally know being reported on the nightly news, you are saddened by it but there is no real emotional impact.

The tributes prepare to enter the hunger games.

This is true for all the kids/tributes. I didn't care for any of them. Does this make me cold hearted? No, the movie just didn't give a dam about any of them enough to really introduce them to us so I didn't give a dam in return. Even the troublemaker kids felt more like bullies than any real threat and that is a real problem. Oh and about those rules I was talking about...yeah...apparently there aren't any. These "games" are apparently on their 74th run which is an impressive number. Now I can't hold it against the film for the game not being perfect by that point (hell, not even the Academy Awards have gotten it right yet after almost a century) but this feels almost like they are winging it for the most part. How do the "games" start? Not by strategically placing all the kids throughout the arena to give them a fighting chance...nope. They start all the kids AT THE SAME SPOT? Why? I guess it is a way to thin the herd but given that this is supposedly for entertainment why would you want more than half your cast taken out in the first few minutes? Wouldn't that upset your viewers? Then you have the fact that there is no progression to anything during the "games". THEY DON'T GO ANYWHERE. I want to reiterate that last point. These kids don't go anywhere. They literally run in circles in the same dam forest for the entirety of the game. This arena they are in is never even laid out for us so we end up having no idea what the boundaries are. When a character starts to stray to far, we (and they) only know it because one of the television producers says so and proceeds to throw fireballs at them to get them back on track. This is one of the most poorly constructed future sports I have ever seen.

Oh yeah that's another thing that isn't ever explained. How and why are the producers allowed to manipulate the proceedings? I don't just mean by pointing them in certain directions but actually throwing things at them that will kill them. You would think that with these "games" being the tool used to control the districts these kids are from that they would have to play somewhat fair or else there would be some sort of uprising. These people are already pretty upset about having to give up their kids for these "games", I can only imagine their anger when they see some CG dogs manifested out of nowhere to help chase down and kill one of their tributes. Maybe that is part of the game though. Perhaps it is well established to the population that something like that is to be expected. Problem is that I HAVE NO IDEA if that is part of the game or not regardless of what the characters know. What I am getting at here (in case you haven't noticed) is that the film is missing the basic building blocks needed to help me understand what the hell is going on in this world or even this dam game! Its not enough that the characters know, I NEED TO KNOW TOO! Otherwise I am going to just make my own shit up and it shouldn't be that way. Oh and did I mention that they are constantly changing the rules about how many winners there can be?...sigh.

Katniss contemplates her role in this years hunger games.

There is another problem I need to address as well, something I know will have people rolling their eyes but I feel as though it must be said. This movie should have been rated R. By making this PG-13 it gave the filmmakers an easy way out of dealing with some pretty f**ked up subject matter. Namely that of watching children forced to kill one another. Say what you will about taste and tact but when a film is so squarely focused on making its audience witness children kill one another it should resonate with us more than it does here. I got the feeling that they wanted to appear as though they are brave by tackling such a touchy subject but they didn't want to offend anyone either so they half-assed it. I'm sorry but if you are going to go down this road then you need to go all the way or not at all. It's not that I want to see children die in a brutal fashion but I feel as though the impact of seeing these kids kill each other is lessened to such a degree that you can almost shrug it off. By having these kids killed either off screen, during a horrible and obvious shaky cam or cutting out the sound so we don't actually hear the killing blow cheapened what should have been a horrifying act. I felt as though we should have felt appalled by the sights on screen, that we should have been ready to create our own uprising when we see a kid have their neck snapped. It got to the point where it felt like the film was ashamed to show us any of that. The ironic thing is that by not going all the way with it they actually had the reverse effect on me by making me somewhat numb to the whole affair. When a kid went down I didn't feel a thing which is in stark contrast to how I felt when a kid was killed in a film like Battle Royale.

Just about the only positive thing I was able to take away from any of this was the performance by Jennifer Lawrence. I feel so bad for her right now (not financially mind you because I am sure she made a shit ton of money off this thing). You could tell how invested she was in her character. There wasn't one instant where I wasn't rooting for her to come out as the victor. Her story is that of the underdog and I can't help but get behind any character who is fighting against impossible odds. But it was Lawrence herself who won me over, her persistence and determination was engaging from beginning to end. There are a few emotional beats that, despite my indifference to the actual situation, she just nails and that went a long way to making me enjoy the film despite its many faults. I only wish that the film she was in did her a better service, it is always a shame to see such a committed performance by a talented actor get undermined by poor execution on the part of the filmmakers, the people of whom she and ourselves put our trust in. I bear no ill will towards her and as a matter of fact thank her for making this somewhat trying experience a pleasant one for the most part.

Everyone around the world tunes in to watch kids kill each fun.

All the actors did a fine job for the most part though. There is nothing wrong with the film on that front. Josh Hutcherson was very likable as Peeta and garnered just the right amount of sympathy without ever seeming like an annoying whiner. Both Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks were extremely entertaining in their roles as the mentors for Katniss and Peeta with Banks in particular who seemed way out of her element but held it together for the most part. I even thought Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' make-up and clothing designer was fairly sincere and heartfelt. When I think about it I believe the strongest parts of this film really do rest on the shoulders of its cast. About the only actors that get shortchanged are all the other kids for reasons I have already explained. While they were unable to overcome the dodgy script and the relentlessly ridiculous and unrefined setting they were dropped into they all at least made the experience tolerable.

So, are you tired of all the shit talking yet? I know most of my issues and complaints toward the film will fall upon deaf ears but that doesn't change the fact that this film has some serious problems. Strangely enough I did not hate my time spent with the film, I was just extremely disappointed by its lack of follow through on many of the subjects it was tackling. I thought there could have been a great movie here, something that could get me excited about this soon-to-be franchise but alas that was not meant to be. When the next movie comes out I hope they find a way of better realizing this world and bring it to the screen in a much more competent way than what was done here. As it stands now though, The Hunger Games as a first entry into a franchise is a failure. It is a film filled with a ton of missed opportunities, a lot of untapped potential, a poorly constructed future society that makes almost no sense, and an outstanding but squandered performance by its star Jennifer Lawrence.

By this point you might be thinking I will tell you to stay far away from the film but to the contrary, this isn't a horrible film. I just don't think it deserves or even earns any of the attention it is getting. I know the fans are what will make or break this film (from what I understand they definitely made it) but it is the blind devotion I mentioned at the outset that truly saddens me. A while back a film adaptation of a popular franchise was released that I DID HAVE a personal investment in (The Last Airbender) that turned out poorly. Thankfully though the fans (and myself) spoke out against its poor handling and made the film a financial flop. Would we have liked to have seen more films in that franchise? You bet your ass, but we didn't want them to be done so poorly. So we chose to have none at all as opposed to weaker versions of what it was we fell in love with. Whether or not this film is an accurate translation of the book is unknown by me. If it is then so be it, I concede to the fact that I just don't get it. However, if it butchers its source material and didn't do it justice (which I hope is the case because this movie isn't very good) then it truly saddens me that the fans would let their franchise be destroyed in this way. Do yourself and the rest of the world a favor and if you are even the slightest bit interested in it then don't get caught up in the hype like I did. Just wait it out and...




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