Directed By: Gary Ross
Written By: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci
In my short experience writing movie reviews in the last few years I have noticed a few things. One thing in particular is how certain movies are simply easy to write about. After watching I just can’t wait to sit down and delve deep into their makings. Sometimes it is because I had a strong feeling towards them, for or against, other times there are certain aspects about them that are yearning to be analyzed and explored. Then there are movies that are a literal pain to write about. They are simply there and don’t do much more than exist. There is not much to take away as they aren’t horrible enough to insight anger or great enough to bring about joy. That’s the way I felt after watching The Hunger Games. The one term that is etched into my head as I attempt to describe my feeling towards this film is, that oh so uninspired word of “Fine”. The word is as much of insult as it is a sentiment of praise. Having never read the books I didn’t have any real stake in the outcome. Without that ownership of fandom I was simply an observer wanting to see what this franchise was all about. In the end it did spark my curiosity but also I felt this large void of meaning as if it was lacking any type of soul.
Adding to the soullessness I felt was a story that made the critical error of assumption. Assumption that the audience walking in already had background knowledge of what The Hunger Games is all about. The story is set in a dystopian future that has been able to remain peaceful after war that nearly ended the world . Though peace exists freedom is nothing more than a memory. The world is split into 12 Districts each being ruled by the Capital. Each year in order to maintain this peace all the Districts participate in the Hunger Games. A brutal ritual were one male and one female from each district between the ages of 12 through 18 are randomly chosen to participate in a battle to the death. Each tribute, as they are called, must fight to survive as only one can walk away as the victor District. One of the biggest issues I had was the fact the story never really established how The Hunger Games was responsible for maintaining this world order. There was never a strong correlation between the Hunger Games and the rest of the world. The event in itself was nothing more than a fight for survival, which wouldn’t have been an issue if so much time wasn’t spent trying to make it more than that. It was never able to answer that basic question of, “Why?”. Why is there so much importance placed on this game? Is it nothing more than a spectator sport? If so why is it the linchpin keeping this world together? It threw you into this world and made you put the pieces together to determine what exactly was going on. Typically that isn’t an issue and I do appreciate a film that has enough respect for the audience to let them figure things out for themselves. The issue was it never gave you enough resources to fill in those blanks. Without those resources it limited the immense struggle the characters were facing.
Though the story of the world The Hunger Games had its problems the story of Katniss Everdeen was easy to get behind. In large part that was due to the performance of Jennifer Lawrence. I appreciated the fact that the film made the effort to bring in talented actors, like Jennifer Lawrence, even though it would have been successful no matter who they casted. Lawrence is not only able to handle the emotional aspect of the character, but also able to pull off the physical challenges the role possessed. The character of Katniss Everdeen lives in the 12th District, the poorest of all the Districts. In order to provide for her family Katniss hunts to bring in food and money. Her hunting has made her a natural with a bow and that gift will prove itself very useful in the future. This is the first year Katniss’s younger sister Prim will have her name enter into the Reaping. The Reaping is the event where the tributes are randomly chosen for the Hunger Games. Luckily her sister’s name is only entered once making the odds in her favor. However the odds are against Prim as her name is chosen for tribute. Not wanting to see her sister go to what would surely be her demise Katniss volunteers herself for tribute saving her sister. What makes Katniss an easy character to get behind is the essential simplicity of her story. She is driven by family and survival and her actions reflect that. Her vulnerability comes from her wiliness to take charge of a situation even it’s to her own determent. While the hand she was dealt is a less than stellar one she doesn’t fold. She is poor, nearly starving, and about to face her impending doom but remains vigilante. You understand why as she is motivated as her success is beyond her own self-interest. When she leaves her home and the scope of the story begins to broaden the issues with the story begin to slip in. After the Reaping Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the other tribute from her district, are taken to the Capital. Peeta was a character I did have issues with as he came off rather bland. For the amount of time spent with his character I never got the sense of what he was all about. It was a character that was extremely lacking any type of personality. One person who brought a lot of personality to the movie was Woody Harreison as Haymitch Abernathy the mentor for Peeta and Katniss. It felt like a strange casting as first, and it did take some time to get used to his crazy wig, but in the end it strangely worked.
As the tributes enter the Capital they soon realize they have become instant celebrities. This celebrity is important and plays a huge role in the actual games. Before the games tributes attempt to gain the attention of Sponsors who can parachute in needed items, like medicine or food, during the games. A lot of time was spent with this idea of the tributes attempting to gain Sponsors, which really bogged down the pacing of the middle of the film. If the world itself was better establish there may have been more of a purpose to this idea, but having people appeal to what was no more than bodiless entities become rather repetitive and meaningless. The pacing overall was very hurry up and wait as it briskly brings you into this world to only come to a sudden halt that is unable to move forward. The best example of this is how the entire world is literally explained to you during a short video then you spend what feels like forever waiting for the Hunger Games to actual start. Think of week of the Pregame programing that goes on before the Super Bowl. By the third day of hearing the same stories over and over you just want to game to start. That is what happened here. The idea of surviving a game to the death by getting people to like you through spectacle and dramatic acts does feel like an interesting cynical take on our current Reality TV/Internet fame society. It just never really went anywhere.
With the stalling of the second act I was glad to see the start of the Hunger Games. It really brought new life into the film. One thing I should mention is that before the Hunger Games begins we are told the biggest challenge is not the other contestants but attempting to survive the elements. That is why Sponsors are so important. With both food and water scarce having additional support is often the only way to survive. That however is not touched on at all during the actual contest. The entire event seemed to take place over a few days’ time so starving was never a real issue. That made the amount time dealing with Sponsors even more mind boggling. When they did play a role it was more of a reaction to the characters actions during the games rather than being a result of any of the Pregame festivities. That in a way was microcosm of the film as a whole as there was a constant disconnect between the events occurring in the film. When the game finally started I was happy to see the story get back to its core and focus on Katniss. I had to respect the fact that what could have just been a staging area for action set pieces was actually a lot more than that. It allowed the character of Katniss to develop as her motivations and determination became even clearer. The world began to route for her and you couldn’t help but join in. When the action did start rolling it however was rather lack luster. There were some highlights but overall it was just another example of the moving going through the motions. A lot has been made about the level of violence this films has. People question if this is suitable for kids or teenagers. Overall the violence was not all that extreme. It was jawing seeing kids killing kids, but for the most part the blood and gore was nothing worse than you would see on Network television. Plus there is a purpose for this violence as it plays a large part in many of the character’s development. What starts as a fight for survival begins to evolve into something greater. If the world was only better established the meaning behind that change would have been even more impactful
The big thing in Hollywood today is attempting to create the tent pole franchise films. With the Harry Potter franchise ending last summer and the Twilight ending this year the question is what series will fill the void they are leaving behind. Well it is clear simply based on box office dollars that The Hunger Games has done its part to answer that question. One wonders however if there is an actual quality film hiding underneath all of that hype, or if the success is simply based on the already built in audience. That built in audience is the anchor of the movies success but it also limits the film in a number of ways. The delicate balance of creating a film that meets fans expectations that is still accessible for the general audience can lead to an end product that pleases no one. In the case of The Hunger Games there is enough evidence to show this is far more than a simple cash-in as an actual effort is given to make something of actual value. While the effort was there the discipline to make tough choices wasn’t. With a run time of two and half hours you can’t have more story, but want you can have is a story that decides what it wants to focus on.