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The Hunger Games (2012)

May 27, 2012

MY CALL:  This surprisingly mature film presents an admixture of coming-of-age, bravery and family altruism with an intriguing score spot on for mood setting.  Ignore the young adult readership of this film and see it with your best bro, girlfriend or family.  So worth it. [A-]  IF YOU LIKE THIS, WATCH:  For suggestions see my “sidebars” at the end of the article.

“From the Treaty of Treason: In penance for their uprising each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at a public ‘Reaping.’ These tributes shall be delivered to the custody of the Capitol.  And then transferred to a public arena where they will fight to the death, until a lone victor remains. Henceforth and forever more this pageant shall be known as The Hunger Games.”

The future looks grim.  Our story begins with two sisters.  One young (Prim; Willow Shields), suffering from recurring nightmares of being chosen in The Reaping, the other a mid-teen (Katniss; Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and X-Men: First Class), struggling to raise and feed her junior.  Residing in what appears to be a destitute Eastern European village, Katniss wanders the forest with her bow in search of their next meal after putting her sister to bed.  Demonstrably a talented huntswoman, she uses the wind and clever tricks to lure her prey into the open.  At home they bathe with buckets and rags and embrace a simple barter economy in which a squirrel can buy you a piece of bread no bigger than your fist or, with consequence, increased odds at The Reaping will garner extra rations.

Nice jacket, Katniss.

At The Reaping ceremony their worst nightmare comes true when Prim’s name is drawn.  To spare her young, innocent sister, Katniss volunteers as District 12’s tribute in her stead.  It was during this scene that I realized this movie was suited for adults and not just the young adult readership of the books.  The scene was tactful and, emotionally, felt very real.  Katniss is nothing if not credibly heroic;  motherly, protective, brave and altruistic.  After being chosen she shows no fear for anything but the future well-being of Prim and their emotionally vacant, widowed mother.

The Reaping: District 12

“Our lucky winner.  Share a few words with your fans.” –said the zombie fashion queen (Elizabeth Banks), holding the mic.

Stanley Tucci, with highlighted Victorian hair as ridiculous as The Fifth Element’s opera scene boasted, rises above his silly outfit to perform fantastically as the event’s ongoing emcee.  And Wes Bentley (Gone; Ghost Rider) looks ridiculously diabolical with weird facial hair and vest suits, as the promoter and director of the event.  Even more strangely wardrobed is the villainous Elizabeth Banks (Our Idiot Brother; The Next Three Days), a striking purple and powdered pale menace to high society who acts as if the chosen tributes are to be congratulated for their participation.  Woody Harrelson (Friends with Benefits, Rampart), who I normally love, is rather unimpressive as their hesitant, alcoholic mentor and previous Hunger Games victor.  He explains that the best means of survival (i.e., food and shelter) is to get people to like you; to have sponsors.

Woody is just never credible with hair.  Somehow Banks was more credible in that wardrobe atrocity.

Some take to the Hunger Games’ pageantry like a Sith to the Dark Side, enjoying the exploitative glamour and solicitously glad-handing the high rollers in search of sponsorship and fanfare.  Meanwhile Katniss quietly resents the process and waits to carry out her sentence.  But she learns she must play the game of pageantry for this broadcast finale which boasts all of the hype of an NFL draft on an Academy Award show red carpet.

Participants get time to train and learn skills to survive the harsh climate of their expansive battlefield.  The process is interesting.  Woody becomes a more likable character into this phase, but no more credible really.  The preparations combine pre-season training camp with political campaigning complete with stylists, publicists, and a Tonight Show interview vying for public favor.

X-Men, suit up!

Unexpectedly, the actual Hunger Games competition was the least entertaining part of The Hunger Games—not because it wasn’t well-executed, but because all of the backstory and build-up were so inexplicably perfectly-executed!  As for the free-for-all death match, I was surprised that they managed to minimize the violence so much without harming the moviegoers’ believability of the story.  The combat and kills were effective, tactful, and actually quite appropriate for family viewing while still managing to convey the dire futility of the games.

So I say kudos to all filmmakers involved.  I expected a lame Twilight-saga-esque, young adult, female-empowerment disappointment.  Instead, I got something that I think will please everyone from the pre-teen daughter, 20-something son, middle-aged parents and everyone in-between.  The writing was solid and it never felt like it was meant for young crowds.  The relationships were ageless whether about love, betrayal, alliance or trust.  And the scenario, while admittedly a bit far-fetched, was justified about as well as it could have been by some well-placed scenes between Donald Sutherland and Shane West politically addressing how to control the poor, spare them their hope, and reap what is needed.

A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.

SIDEBAR:  Jennifer Lawrence has some big things coming up.  Later this year horror fans will enjoy her in The House at the End of the StreetThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire has tentatively been announced for 2013, followed by the next X-Men sequel in 2014 in which she’ll continue her role as Raven/Mystique.

SIDEBAR:  I love free-for-all to-the-death competition flicks.  If you do, too, you should certainly seek out Battle Royale (2000; ultra-violent, weak action), The Condemned (2007; rather violent, awesome action), Surviving the Game (1994; more plotty than violent), and The Running Man (1987; just plain Schwarzenegger-classic fun).

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