Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

Review by Pete Roche

There’s an awful lot of food and drink on view in THE HUNGER GAMES for a movie whose title invokes emaciation.  But the leg-of-lamb, pastry trays, and shrimp cocktails help underscore the difference between the haves and have-nots in this hotly-anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ book.   

No one’s more shocked by the disparity than heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), one of two sixteen year-old Tributes sent from dingy District 12 (the Appalachians) to the opulent Capitol of Panem (Rocky Mountains) to participate in a brutal televised teenage fight-to-the-death.

Forced upon the Districts by a sadistic metropolis run by cotton-candy coiffed bourgeoisie in pastel-colored lame, the 74th Games is meant to punish the people of Panem for a failed past rebellion while instilling a sense—however illusory—of solidarity and hope.

“Just a spark,” President Snow (a deliciously sinister Donald Sutherland) warns Head Gamesman Seneca Crane (an ornately mustachioed Wes Bentley). 

“But any more than that…a fire…and it must be contained.”

Katniss doesn’t have much hope, and who could blame her?  She’s devoted herself to caring for younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) since their father perished in an industrial explosion (their mom is catatonic).  The resourceful coal miner’s daughter hunts game in a nearby forest to sustain her family in a District left to starve by the oppressive Capitol.  Kat is a talented archer, but sometimes deer and squirrel shish-kabob aren’t enough.  Sometimes you have to rely on the (forbidden) charity of others.  Like the baker’s son, who suffers a drubbing from his mother after tossing scraps to Katniss.

One boy and one girl between 12-18 are chosen to represent each District in the bloody pageant.  A teen can have multiple entries, depending on his age—or his family’s need for an extra ration of grain.  Katniss’ hunting partner and would-be paramour, the stalwart Gale (Liam Hemsworth), has forty-two.  The odds are not ever in his favor.   But the laws of probability are, well, random…even downright horrifying at times, and such is the case when Primrose is selected despite having only one entry, her first.  In a dramatic first for her District, protective Kat offers to take her fragile sister’s place. 

Katniss forms a wary alliance with her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), while training for battle and lives like a pampered rock star during pre-game prep in the Capitol.  They’re interviewed by buffoonish TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), chaperoned by goofy, pink-haired Effie (a barely recognizable Elizabeth Banks), groomed and attired by sympathetic Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and coached by former champ-turned drunk Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).  It’s all about show, their mentors tell them.  Make a good impression, and some wealthy sponsor just might parachute supplies to you in the domed gaming arena. 

What follows is like Stephen King’s novella-turned-80s cheese flick THE RUNNING MAN, but with American Idol’s audience participation factor.  Katniss’ high training score makes her a target for “career” Tributes, who conspire to take her out early.  She finds a friend in agile little Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and plays up the star-crossed lover angle with Peeta to placate viewers and increase her chances against the more physically-imposing male combatants (Cato, Thresh, and Marvel) and ruthless, cutlery-hurling females (Foxface and Clove).  But this particular season is set in a forest, giving Katniss an advantage.  

Fiction and film have surveyed this thematic territory before, with mixed results.  The concept of sacrifice and blood sport as commonplace goes as far back as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Shirley Jackson’s grim 1948 tale “The Lottery” saw neighborhoods bonding over public stonings.  But sci-fi writers and moviemakers have taken up the torch for our time, squeezing satire from Orwell / Vonnegut / Huxley / Rand-inspired future worlds like the ones shown in DEATH RACE 2000.  Each generation deserves its own LOGAN’S RUN.

HUNGER GAMES is necessarily condensed for the screen, with director Gary Ross (SEABISCUIT, PLEASANTVILLE) minimizing some peripheral characters (Avox Girl), omitting others entirely (Madge and Rooba), or by glossing over some of Collins’ leitmotifs (caste systems, feudalism, Selective Service and military draft, etc.).  But Ross retains just enough of the author’s vision to convincingly depict the abject misery and fear under which most of Panem resides. The changes are small stuff, really—the result of creative license in order to make room for fisticuffs and make-out sessions in caves—and won’t be noticed by nonreaders. The end result is that the 140-minute movie whizzes by like the sleek bullet-train shuttling the Tributes around. 

Ross adheres to Collins’ first-person POV, filtering most of the action through Kat’s eyes (pun intended).  Which means most of the violence occurs off camera.  The death we are privy to typically consists of glimpsing a lethal injury after it’s been inflicted, or some telltale splashes of blood.  But yeah, mom and dad, HUNGER GAMES does earn its PG-13 rating with a couple nasty takedowns, including a neck-snap so gruesome (and sudden) that it drew gasps at our screening.  Tom Stern’s cinematography is top-notch, notwithstanding a couple skirmishes where the camera is so shaky it’s impossible to determine who is besting whom, much less how they’re accomplishing it—as if the filmmakers simply rolled their equipment along the grass alongside the wrestling teens.   

Lawrence, who acquitted herself marvelously in last year’s WINTER’S BONE, proves herself again, and it’s nice to have a lead female who stands on her own, who can take or leave the men in her life rather than be codependent upon them.  Who can choose between lovers, or not choose at all, rather than throw herself at her suitors.  Her Katniss is also cool—and certainly comely—enough to sustain the attention of boys in the audience.  Hutcherson is fine, even if most of his scenes are spent recuperating and bellyaching.  But Harrelson, Banks, and Kravitz come off like they had a blast on set, riffing off each other in close quarters.  The costumes and sets (particularly the Capitol interiors) are appropriately gaudy and eye-popping—as if someone transported Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe to the bustling STAR WARS planet of Coruscant—and will surely receive nods from the Academy come February.

One wonders why the Districts haven’t revolted again after seventy years of submission to totalitarian rule, sheepishly surrendering their young like Arthurian maidens to an insatiable dragon and limiting their protest to unheard utterances and hand gestures saluting the kids they’ve sent off to be killed.  But I guess the lesson here is to not take those vegetables on your plate for granted.  Be thankful for what you’ve got, for the people around you, and for the simple fact that you’re not expected to slash their throats for anyone else’s entertainment.  At least not most of the time.

Oh, and if any of you kids out there have a fantasy-adventure rattling around in your brain, don’t keep it to yourself.  If there’s anything Collins, Rowling (HARRY POTTER), and Meyer (TWILIGHT) have taught us, it’s that this stuff is money.

Me, I’m just thankful kids read anything anymore, given the number of distractions and technological diversions at their fingertips.  3 stars out of 4.


1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    This is great. The Hunger Games has been my summer reading for two years now. I am truly hoping the Hunger Games movie will be as good as the books. I am most interested in seeing the costumes designed by Cinna.


We approve all legitimate comments. However, comments that include links to irrelevant commercial websites and/or websites dealing with illegal or inappropriate content will be marked as spam.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.