Monday, 13 August 2012

Film Review: The Hunger Games

Certificate: 12A (intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens)
Directed By: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones
Budget: $78 million
Runtime: 142 minutes
Trailer: Watch

The Hunger Games is an adaptation of the three-part fictional series penned by Suzanne Collins, set in a post-apocalyptic world where two children chosen are from each of the twelve districts are forced by the state to compete in a battle to the death. When young Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) volunteers herself as District Twelve's representative in place of her sister at the annual Hunger Games, she embarks on a rigorous training programme with a drunken tutor (Harrelson) in the slim hope coming out the brutal contest as the sole survivor. All cheery stuff then.

Collins' work has often been compared to author Koushun Takami's novel Battle Royale (also adapted to film by Kinji Fukasaku), in fact resembling the concept so strongly that The Hunger Games has invited criticisms of being a direct copy of it. Certainly, despite Collins' adamance that she had never heard of the Japanese cult classic before writing, the conceptual similarities are undeniable. Indeed, the ideas and themes aren't new, inviting comparisons to earlier fictional works such as William Golding's Lord of the Flies or Stephen King's The Running Man. Indeed, this isn't an original piece by any stretch of the imagination.

The premise can be a little difficult to swallow. We are told that there was a big war where afterward as you do, people decided to hold barbaric sacrificial games in order to ensure it doesn't happen again. Riiighhht. There's no real purpose to it, no real justification save some twaddle about remembering this unexplained cataclysmic event (oh the irony), other than it for whatever reason satiates the sadistic apetites of Panem's elites (the fractured nation which rose from the ashes of the former USA). Annoyingly, The Hunger Games never explains how its scenario came to be other than suggesting this past 'event' somehow manifested into a dystopian society where children are forced to kill one another. Such a desultory leap in logic creates an air of incredulity, further compounded by the fact that this supposed future seems to have done away with even most basic of household conveniences and postmodern norms. Such an 'intellectual quandary' only serves to beg for answers as to why. Yes, one might argue that this sort of thing shouldn't be considered in a coming of age teen-series based on a pubescent girl thrust into a death match, but such misnomers make the whole plot feel bitty.

When events do finally take to the battlefield, an enclosed forest space teeming with all sorts of weaponry and genetically modified nasties resembling Zool's hellhounds from Ghostbusters, The Hunger Games instigates an annoying habit of flip-flopping its narrative which one can only assume was intended to be dramatic. Alliances between combatants are forged, and changed, then changed again as the games' inflexible rule of only one being able to survive supposedly creates false pretences among the competitors' motivations. This is largely illustrated through Peeta (Hutcherson), the fellow citizen from District Twelve lucky enough to win the Hunger Games lottery. But rather than create a satiating mystery to our protagonist's inclinations, the constant dithering and failure to take a firm line with any story arc becomes frustrating.

If you're looking for something more meaningful here, one could point to a poignant parallel with today's 99% in the impoverished districts of Panem and the 1% living in the lavish Capitol. In a throwback to something resembling Louis XIV's court, an aristocratic Europe with computers, The Hunger Games dwells mercilessly on the privileged's enslavement of the wider populace dwelling in the twelve districts. It certainly invites some evocative comparisons to today, and actually paints a somewhat disquieting picture on the hopelessness of the average human being in its dreary divide of circumscribed citizens and their opulent oppressors. Ironically perhaps though is how The Hunger Games actually conforms to the empty spectacles designed to distract those dissatisfied with our current situation. It's very easy to become seduced by the notion that this film is actually a much deeper commentary on things like violence, inequality, feminism and an effete media elite. The reality however is that it doesn't actually have much to say on any of these issues, merely raising them in some sort of populist appeal without adding any substance.

Regardless of unoriginality, this is still a very well filmed piece of work. The Hunger Games neatly conveys the idea of gory teen violence with smoke and mirrors, carefully disguising brutality as a suggestion rather than something outright visual. Indeed, all the gore and sex in the books have been cleverly, if not impressively toned down here. Much of the kids bludgeoning each other over the head with bricks is alluded to rather than the actual observable crunch into bone while any sexuality is all but censored. Not that the fate of any of their characters seem to matter much anyway. A lot about The Hunger Games feels perfunctory where, particularly in the case of Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, set up as one of the most interesting characters, is horribly underused. You will find yourself caring little for their journey's or wrench at their inevitable fates. This is true even of Katniss, a seemingly blank sheet who elicits very little in way of personality. Yes, she might be overawed by events, or maybe an example of how girls can also be stoic, but good god girl show us something other than the fact you can use a bow and arrow.

For all its wheezing and allusions to something deeper, you can't help but feel that The Hunger Games amounts to nothing more than a spectacle. It merely toys with grittiness, avoids real brutality when it comes down to it, and never really pushes the boundaries of any issues or themes it raises. The fact that it goes on for two hours and twenty-two minutes like this can also be tedious. Following in the footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, it remains to be seen if it will reach the same dizzying heights, although the odds probably aren't in its favour.