Wednesday, 28 March 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Hunger Games

I'm not normally one for mass hype. It tends to have the opposite effect on me where I actively start opposing the film (when someone tells you you must like something, so you instantly don't). However I made an exception for The Hunger Games which reeled me in like a piece of cheese wedged on a trap (that's quite an apt analogy actually - as will emerge). Firstly the premise sounded excellent and didn't involve vampires or aliens or superheroes. Then it became apparent that the story which fuels the massacre theatre that emboldens it is very smart, and plays on the dystopia nightmare as well as the satirical dig at reality TV shows. And I quite liked the fact the trailer stops at the moment the kids are let out into the arena to fight to the bloody death, meaning that beyond that - if you haven't read the books (which at last o'clock I almost did) - you have no idea what happens. But maybe that's not such a ploy after all: maybe that's because as soon as the kids are released into the arena the film just flatlines.

Based on the hu-UAGE-ly successful teen novels by Suzanne Collins, the film stars Jennifer Lawrence as tough as nuts Katniss Everdeen who lives with her mother and sister Primrose in District 12, a state of the near future America 'Panem' which is governed at the centre by the Capitol: rich and flourishing against the poverty and bitterness of the 'prole' zones. Katniss, following the death of her father in a coal mining accident, has taken up being provider for the family: fiercely protective of her younger sister, harsh but tender with their vacant mother, and hunter gatherer for their food supplies along with her friend-and-would-be-lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Once the story has opened we're at the tribute ceremony for the annual Hunger Games competition: as punishment for a previous rebellion against the Capitol, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen at random from each District to compete against each other in a specialised and constantly changing arena until only one of them survives and is named victor. Despite reassurances from Katniss, Primrose's name is plucked from the jar and in terror Katniss volunteers in her place. She travels with fellow nominee Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to the Capitol where she is trained not only in battle but mentored to win sponsorship from the viewers (by Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz). Inititally hostile, Katniss and Peeta soon grow close, but realise only one of them can survive. TV interviews, fancy parades and sponsorship rounds later, the 24 kids are released into the arena and from therein it's vicious, selfish, desperate survival of the fittest.

I thoroughly enjoyed the "Hunger" part of it. I loved the world Collins has created - this idea that the lowly districts full of the working class are drab, grim and full of misery and strife, with people barely able to eat. Then there's the crazy Vivienne Westwood-esque Capitol, home to the rich who adorn themselves in bright pink hair and blue lipstick (I would really fit in) and feed on watching this one big TV show every year. It reminded me so much of (a brutalistic) Bear v Shark, a world where everyone is obsessed with this one contest and every action revolves around it. Who do you want to win? And why? Massive TV screens projected everywhere, always on, showing vital statistics, the latest betting odds and highlights from previous years. It had touches of Charlie Brooker's recent Black Mirror too, in which kids are confined to a compound where they are forced to indulge in and take part in talent competitions. The Hunger Games is an epic world drawing on this fantasy to watch others and feel involved, but goes for the extreme shocks to get our attention.

The build up to the Games was terrific, and I only wish we had had more of it to savour and really whet the appetite - I feel that the Games arrive just at the right time when we're beginning to get curious. They should have made us wait. Staney Tucci with his slicked back blue ponytail is tremendous - probably the best thing in it - playing the campish extravagant TV presenter completely straight so he comes across as completely wacky, yet surprisingly genuine. Apart from shady undertones from the President (Donald Sutherand) and orchestrator of the Games Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) everyone seems touchingly honest and, at times, even compassionate despite being complicit in child murder. I'll point out here too the excellent direction of Gary Ross, whose camera work - though a little too shaky at times - gives you a real sense of the horrors the characters are going through. It's great when it's shot from the POV of Katniss - veering in a disorientating manner as she walks up the steps after she has volunteered to take part in the Games in place of her sister. Of course there is no real fear from our perspectives for Katniss - we know she isn't going to die - yet still that terror and suspense is there, piquing when the kids are transported into the arena through cylinder tubes and stand prepared waiting for the countdown and to fight for their lives.

Almost as soon as the countdown reaches one, things begin to fall apart. Spoilers ahead alert!

Once the Games begin, half of the contestants are hacked down out of the starting gate. But we don't get to see this. Catering to the tween crowd again to make the film a 12A (though this dampening down makes more sense than it did for The Woman in Black) this whole sequence is heavily edited with the action fast, choppy and basically pointless. After the flurry of limbs and weapons we see the bodies dead on the ground, but we have no idea what happened or who did what. Whether the 'uncut' version the Americans received makes this any clearer I don't know. Katniss manages to escape this melee and run into the forest where for the next reasonably enjoyable 20 minutes or so she is tracked like an animal by an alliance of the stronger kids who are working together - aided by Peeta - to take her down. The fact that Katniss is the prey here and the victim makes you root for her even more, which was hugely beneficial for me as I tend to turn on the hero and want them dead after about an hour. There's a fun bit with a trackerjacker nest (genetically engineered wasps whose stings can give hallucinations and cause even death) where Katniss is able to escape but then the film really begins to drag.

She teams up with a young girl from District 11 called Rue who apart from seeming to look up to Katniss as a role model/big sister figure (it plays on Katniss's relationship with her own sister) we know very little about, so apart from the fact that she's a cutie she's also a non-character. And speaking of which - who are these kids? There's so much focus on Katniss and Peeta and the story is so driven by their plight that the others are just fodder. Compare it to its crazy twin Battle Royale, enough little individual stories and friendship groups were developed in that film for us to really feel engaged in the process. Here, it's always Katniss and Peeta, together 'til the end. The deaths of "the others" aren't even very interesting, you could simply watch the whole thing unravel on fast forward.

I didn't warm to Peeta at all. I'm not the biggest fan of Josh Hutcherson and his square face anyway, but his character was so irrelevant. The romance - if you could call it that - just brought the clever plot down. Their connection was such a ridiculous mix of unbelievable contrivance I kept wondering when Katniss was going to turn around and just stick an arrow through his eye. Or at least have a moment after the Games are over, where he makes a move and she pointedly pulls away from him as if to say "no-one's watching us now." I would have loved that. She seemed to understand the politics of their getting together, how it would help them win the game and keep the audience on their side, but yet the minute it was all over she stayed at his side. So did she really have feelings for him? Since when? It's so horribly forced. And with Peeta - really? When he was camouflaged as a rock it set me off on a lolathon in the cinema it was so ludicrous. I felt sorry for Liam Hemsworth because he was hardly given anything to do, and his relationship with Katniss is so briefly outlined it's hard to feel sorry for him, too. I'm not a fan of Jennifer Lawrence either (Winter's Bone such a disappointment) but she is likable here, and eminently watchable. My world wouldn't have crumbled if she had been killed off though.

The ending... I HATED IT. The rule is there is only one winner. So they should stick to that. I'm all for the Capitol messing up the rules just to put on a good show, but they should stick to their guns and not be frightened if the last two standing decide to take the only way out. Do they see death as more of a victory than winning? I couldn't help thinking that for all the previous 73 Hunger Games there have been, not once has a situation like this ever arisen before, where the last two standing would rather die together than pick one off? It was such a kop out - my main bugbear with Battle Royale. They just should have just let them both die. I understand there will be "repercussions" for their actions, but I was so underwhelmed by the climax I decided to read the synopses for both Books 2 and 3 and I can report it doesn't get any more interesting than this. So I'm not going to be in for the trilogy long haul.

It really suffers from being aimed at the teens. Whilst it's exactly the same premise as Battle Royale, it has more depth and richness to it because of the outside world. Ditch the romance, and spend more time on the history of the Hunger Games and the people involved in it. Wes Bentley's character was frustratingly sparse, and there was no lead up to the arena being this 'interactive dome' where humans play as Gods and can manipulate the weather, nature and inhabitants however much they choose. It's such a waste to have everything so tame - it may seem an odd thing to say as all I've heard about the books is how "grim" they are, but you're not allowed to fully realise that because the characters are irrelevant, and you barely learn anything about the main characters. I understand they're setting up for the other films/books, but you need to entice people from the beginning and for me this was an entertaining one off (with a lame ending) and that's all. There are only two of these supposed "grim" moments: an older boy casually breaking a younger boy's neck, and Katniss' salute to District 11 after Rue is killed (the only time I felt any emotion). The rest of it is straight up blockbuster action with very little peril for our heroine and no suspense for the viewer once you realise the way it's going.

At 142 minutes it's a choc-ful night out if you're going to see this. An excellent first 60-70 minutes showing intrigue and promise is all but obliterated by the bland and frustrating second half. Chances are if you've read the book of The Hunger Games then you're going to be satisfied with Gary Ross' transition onto the big screen, but if like me you're wanting to be impressed after all this build up, you'll be raising one or two eyebrows at the end. Go for the fun of cinema, and remember at all times who the target audience is.

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