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Non-Review Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a solid science-fiction action movie that brushes fleetingly with greatness. Borrowing liberally from various sources of science-fiction cult lore, director Gary Ross provides an efficient little adventure movie that alludes to depths it seems afraid to explore. The result is a stylish little film, one constructed with considerable style and technique. It keeps the audience interested for most of its two-and-a-half hour run time. The problem is that it feels like it should be so much more than it ultimately ends up being. It lacks the killer instinct that it needs to define itself as a truly exceptional piece of work.

Straight arrow?

The Hunger Games draws affectionately on old science-fiction devices and concepts. The stylish production design calls to mind the sort of lavish dystopian future we caught a glimpse of in Rollerball or Logan’s Run. The plot itself is Battle Royale by way of The Truman Show, with the slightest hint of The Running Man thrown into the mix. Ross does an excellent job keeping the movie reigned in and relatively tight, while allowing the story to flow and giving his actors room to maneuver. The script from director Gary Ross, author Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray has any number of fascinating ideas, but seems almost afraid of their implications.

The story takes place in a beautifully realised future in the wake of some cataclysm. As is always the case in these stories, there’s a privileged few asserting dominion over the working-class many. In this case, it’s through the eponymous sporting event. Twenty-four children between the ages of twelve and eighteen are rounded up (two from each district) and dumped into an arena from which only one can survive. The competition is televised, broadcast throughout the ruins of “Panem”, aired in people’s homes and in public squares.

You can Bank on her...

It seems like a damning indictment of popular culture – reality television in particular. The script isn’t even that subtle about the metaphor. Our plucky young heroes seek “ratings” that will earn them “sponsorship” that will determine their survival in the cut-throat reality of mass media entertainment. I’m surprised that the rule changes that are occasionally broadcast aren’t called “sweeps.” It’s very much a story of bread and circuses, with the sinister President Snow controlling his population through manipulation of fear and hope through his mass media.

Ross even throws in a relatively subtle homage to the classic Truman Show, with the Games’ director borrowing Christof’s stage direction. Okay, cuing a flaming tree might not be quite as impressive as “cue the sun”, but it’s a sign that Ross is accutely aware with the satirical value of what he has here. He even positions Stanley Tucci as some sort of unholy futuristic union of Ryan Seacrest and Ant and Dec, in one of the movie’s finer touches. The problem is, however, that the movie wusses out of its own astute observations.

Caese the day!

“What happens if no one watches the Games?” a character asks early on. I suspect that might turn up as a plot point in the sequel, but it raises an interesting thematic point about the viewer’s complicity in this brutality. A clever shot shows the same boy refusing to watch the opening ceremony, as if rejecting the opportunity to feed the meat grinder. The idea of the Games is to manipulate a docile a populace, to get them to root and to hope, to invest their emotions in this particular show as a means of controlling and placating them.

It’s all rigidly staged, with the director even managing a forest fire designed to keep one character inside the arena and to direct her to a bunch of waiting sociopaths. When things get boring and they need a rating boost, they release wild hounds. The characters sell a fabricated love story to the general populace as a means of courting their support. “It’s only television,” the cynical old (drunken) mentor suggests, although the lines between public fantasy and personal reality begin to blur once the Games begin. There’s something crass and debasing about all this, as there is in anything as manipulated and fake, and the movie seems to want to condemn this sort of manipulation…

Harrowed Harrelson...

… and then it engages in it on its own terms. Once the actual Hunger Games start, we’re asked to root for our favourites. The movie immediately eschews any sense of moral complexity and gives us “good” and “bad” kids. Never mind that any kid involved in a brutal spectacle like this is probably a victim, the movie treats its audience the same way that the Hunger Games treats the citizens of the twelve districts. We’re told who to love and who to hate. At one point, a kid boasts about brutally murdering a little girl while grappling with our heroine – just to remind us that there’s a very clear good guy in this scenario. That simplicity dulls the edge quite a bit.

In any movie condemning this sort of violence, there has to be a willingness to be candid about it. Gary Ross and his producers seem afraid to be candid with their audience, and I can understand why. Any level of violence involving children would ultimately earn a higher rating and make the movie inaccessible to the target audience. However, the problem remains, the movie simply isn’t visceral enough. The camera shakes and tumbles to mask the vile brutality unfolding. We are removed from the deaths of the contestants through this cold editing, which means that the whole thing isn’t nearly as disgusting and revolting as it should be. Rather than seeing a spear impale one especially vulnerable constestant, it’s simply there when we cut to her. The death is meant to be emotional, but it’s almost forensically clean and sterile. The movie asks us to get excited about the action and to invest in it, when the entire point would seem to be just the opposite.

Playing dirty...

As two characters bond quietly in the arena, we can imagine the director in his studio hissing “yes…” as he watches the ratings and audience approval soar, but the movie never explores that. Instead it plays those sequences depressingly straight. Despite the fact that the director is manipulating his audience in the same way that Ross is manipulating us, the movie is reluctant to acknowledge or concede that. We’re given snippets of commentary from the studio, but they provide exposition rather than insight. They tell us about landmines hidden in plain sight, rather than drawing attention to the staged moments and manipulated interactions. Such meta-commentary might draw the viewer out of the film, but it seems more honest than ignoring the obvious satirical content set up during the first half.

It’s a shame, because that lack of self-awareness holds the movie back. The movie boasts some superb technical design. It’s set in one of those brilliantly gaudy futures that you don’t see too often these days, with the tackiness of the Capitol rendered beautifully. There is a sense of grandeur and decay to those introductory sequences, and the movie teases big bold ideas that it never truly follows through on. On the other hand, Ross is a competent action director, and he does his best to make sure that the movie’s second half flows smoothly.

Put your hands together...

He’s helped by a superb supporting cast. Stanley Tucci is probably the highlight as the most brutally satirical character, but the entire ensemble does well. I’m especially fond of Woody Harrelson as the grizzled old veteran assigned to teach the two youngsters from his district how to survive. Jennifer Lawrence puts in a solid turn as the lead character, even if the part is barely there. The Hunger Games illustrates that a strong leading young adult actress can help anchor a weak character. We learn relatively little of Katniss Everdeen beyond what Lawrence offers to us, and she does a great job with the material offered.

The Hunger Games is a reasonably solid diversion, produced to the highest technical standards. The problem is that its central ideas simply aren’t developed or explored enough – instead it feels a little complicit in the culture that it seeks to condemn.

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8 Responses

  1. Seems like this is worth a watch. I will rpobably have to wait for it on dvd, but even if i did have money to watch it in theaters i would probably wait a bit as the lines will probably be ridiculous the first few weeks.

    • Yep, it’s gonna be big.

      And I did really like the first half, even if I thought the second half was a bit too conventional for its own good.

  2. I read the book. Only the first one because
    Ididnt like the second…. Im seeing the movie
    In a min and dont know what to expect hopes
    Its not as dry as the book

  3. Darren you are just so very perceptive. I am doing Hunger Games from a post modern perspective: Foucault; Baudrillard; Ayn
    Rand; Nietzsche; etc. I would love a link on your blogroll.

    http://thehungergames4u.blogspot.com

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