The Hunger Games

Can you survive on your own in the woods?  I couldn’t.  It would not take long for me to wad up in the fetal position on the ground and just wait for the end.  I’ve read stories and seen TV shows about people who find themselves stranded in the wilderness and figure out how to make a shelter, build a fire and hunt for food; but I’m afraid that wouldn’t be me.  If there’s not a grocery store and a hotel fairly close to where I’m at, I’m a dead man.  Now imagine that not only do you have to survive in the woods, you have to avoid being killed by nearly two dozen other people.  Yup, you would see me on the ground in a ball just waiting to die.  That is largely what “The Hunger Games” is about on its face.  Dig a little deeper and there’s a whole lot of revolution going on.  Does the social commentary dig its way out of all the teen-on-teen violence?
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12 of the country of Panem which is the leftovers of a post-apocalyptic North America.  Seventy-five years earlier, the Districts that make up Panem began a revolution against the leaders in the Capital.  The Capital was victorious and, in the Treaty of Treason, established that each District would offer up a tribute of one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 and selected in a lottery, and enter them in the Hunger Games to fight to the death until only one survived.  The Games are broadcast all over Panem.  When Katniss’ younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected, Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  Katniss has a great deal of experience hunting for food in the woods that surround her home in District 12.  Her weapon of choice is a bow and arrow.  Also selected from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) who works in the family-run bakery and is a classmate of Katniss.  Transported to the Capital, the two meet Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who will act as their mentor, providing advice on how to win the Hunger Games just as he did 25 years earlier.  Haymitch doesn’t seem all that interested in offering any tips and is more concerned with his next drink.  At the Capital, Katniss and Peeta are introduced to Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) who works with them on their style and presentation.  Getting viewers to like the participants is very important as they can purchase needed supplies, weapons and medicines that are sent to their favorite player.  Katniss is very uncomfortable with all the attention and doesn’t make friends easily but Peeta is a natural.  All the tributes are put through a brief training period then are set out in a wooded area to fight until only one remains.  That child will be the winner of the Hunger Games.
Based on the novel of the same name, “The Hunger Games” is a confusing film.  Not that the story wasn’t clear or was difficult to follow, it just left me with very conflicted feelings about the movie.  I suppose I should do a good point/bad point review to give you an idea of what made it so conflicting for me; but that doesn’t really seem like the best way to get my point across.  I’m not sure this review will make a great deal of sense since I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the film, but here it goes.
“The Hunger Games” takes a very dim view of power and those who wield it.  The authoritarian government led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) uses the Hunger Games to remind the Districts who is in charge.  It also gives those in the impoverished lands something to root for in their otherwise difficult and hopeless lives.  The film does a good job of making us hate nearly everyone who represents the Capital.  All its residents are dressed in brightly colored and very stylized clothing with abundant makeup for both women and men.  Hair styles, both on the head and the face, are outlandish and ornate.  This stands in stark contrast to the clothing of District residents which is old and well-worn in muted, dull colors.  Our first view of a Capital resident is Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) whose white-face makeup makes her painted lips and eye shadow colors stand out even more.  She flits about on her high heels and her garish, tight-fitting outfit, holding a parasol to protect her from the sun as the children line up in their old but best clothes to find out who will be selected as tributes.  You dislike Effie from the start and your opinion of her never improves.  On the other hand, your first impression of Haymitch is that of a washed up drunk but, as the movie progresses, he begins to act like more of a human being and actually offers sound advice to Katniss and Peeta.  Cinna also treats the two with respect and seems to care about their well-being.
Aside from Katniss and Peeta, we don’t learn much about the other tributes.  We find out that Districts 1 and 2 send their most gifted young people to a kind of training academy to better prepare them for the competition and someone from those Districts usually wins.  We get small bits and pieces about a few other tributes but otherwise the focus is largely on Katniss and, to a lesser extent, Peeta.  The predetermined sexual roles of the two leads are reversed as Katniss mostly takes care of Peeta.  This is a refreshing change from what normally happens to strong female characters in action films.  Despite all their abilities, women in action films still tend to need saving by the male lead.  All you need to do is watch “John Carter” to get a vivid example of this tried, true and tired cliché.  While Peeta is strong and smart, he requires saving more often than Katniss who does a pretty good job of taking care of herself.
This lack of knowledge about the other tributes makes their deaths not all that important or involving as they occur.  Aside from one younger tribute with which Katniss joins forces, the deaths are just like mile markers along the highway:  They are there merely to mark the passage of time until we reach the destination.
The end of the games presented me with mixed emotions.  I won’t give it away for anyone who has not read the books or seen the film; but there was an opportunity to give the audience something spectacular and completely unexpected.  The movie is very faithful to the book in this regard so I have to fault both the author for not having the guts to take the road less travelled.  It could have set up a heartbreaking finale that would flow effortlessly into the next book and opened up numerous possibilities for other characters to step forward and lead.  Instead, the ending we’re given is designed to tease us with what might have been and lacks any real imagination.  We are told the characters that make it to the end have angered the government and could cause problems for their District in the future.  The direction of future installments of the series is pretty clear and I largely figured it out without having read any of the books.  This isn’t really a criticism of the books or the movies they will produce as they will still have strong female characters driving the action.
Speaking of action, “The Hunger Games” does something that I hate with the action scenes.  As characters are locked into life-and-death struggles, the camera is practically filming the fights from between the two combatants.  We are so close to the action we can’t see anything.  The camera is also shaking so violently I was afraid the operator was having a seizure.  Trying to follow what’s happening and who was winning gave me a headache.
The computer generated aspects of the film don’t look particularly good either.  Much of it looks flat and even more two dimensional than it should for such a big project.  There are also some wild animals that are CG’d into the action that don’t quite look right.  Their shortcomings are somewhat hidden by the scene being shot at night.  I hope that, considering the giant box office numbers the film is doing, they spend a few more dollars and a little more time on getting the CG looking better for the next film.
Jennifer Lawrence is an excellent actress who plays the lost and damaged role of Katniss very believably.  Her love of her sister and her determination to win for her comes through like a light in the dark.  Katniss is very much like the character Lawrence played and was nominated for an Oscar for in “Winter’s Bone.”  In that film, she was a strong, smart and tough young woman thrown into a dangerous situation by the actions of others, much the same as what we see in “The Hunger Games.”  Her added qualities of vulnerability and sweetness just add to the many reasons we want to see her character survive.  Josh Hutcherson’s character is almost entirely vulnerability and sweetness, lacking much of the toughness of Katniss.  The audience wants to protect him as the games progress and hope there’s some way these two can not only survive but find happiness with each other.
There is so little character development with anyone else they all are mostly caricatures.  The only memorable tributes are the ones with the rude sneers.  A talk show host played by Stanley Tucci is only memorable for his giant blue pompadour and giant, ill-fitting teeth veneers.  The manager of the game played by Wes Bentley makes a bigger impression because of the way his beard is trimmed than for what he does.  Most of the Capital characters are interchangeable and unremarkable, other than for their clothing or hairstyles.  I suppose with a cast this size it’s difficult to give everyone a distinct personality, but they don’t even try.
“The Hunger Games” is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images all involving teens.  We see one person shot with an arrow.  Another is stabbed by a spear.  We see and hear a person getting their neck broken.  We view a couple of open wounds.  We see the aftermath of a person who dies from multiple bee stings.  There are several fist fights and a fair amount of blood.
The notion of a totalitarian government that keeps its thumb on the oppressed by forcing the offering of two youth to be thrown into a public battle to the death like the gladiators of the Roman Coliseum rubs me the wrong way.  I’ve always hated bullies, whether they were in the school yard or the Capital.  Perhaps that’s why I feel torn about this movie.  It is often exciting and suspenseful and Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress, but there are things about the movie that annoy me to no end.  Maybe with time I can see past those things and appreciate the film for its hopeful message of rebellion against dictatorship.  Sadly, I can’t at the moment.
“The Hunger Games” gets three guitars out of five.
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