DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Hunger Games

Monday 20 August 2012

The Hunger Games

On second viewing my issues with this film still remain. It's a pillowy soft treatment of dark, grisly and wholly disturbing subject matter. How do you tell a story about such a sick and twisted blood sport which inexorably leads to everyone dying and not have it violent with grisly bloody and thus rated R, or at least address the sadistic nature of the society in which this film occurs? With the exception of a couple of decent performances from Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson, this film fails.

The Hunger Games (2012) dir. Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz

By Alan Bacchus

The opening is especially clunky, establishing the near-future and dystopian world where a 'Pan American' state, post-WWIII, is divided into 12 districts policed in part by the aforementioned annual spectacle of death called The Hunger Games. The visual design of this world is dull and unimpressive, combining the rural future landscape of say, The Postman, where technology is only in the hands of the elite, and the garish pop art world of Speed Racer, wherein the Games organizers strut around in renaissance-style coloured wigs and caked-on makeup.

The set up involves showing how a boy and girl are chosen from each state to compete in the games to the death. Naturally, there's immense fear and trepidation from all who qualify. We know Jennifer Lawrence's character, Katniss Everdeen, will get chosen (well, kind of), but it's the male choice, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), a character we don't know, that allows the gravitas of the situation to set in. Unfortunately, this fear is gradually whittled away as the film moves along.

A high concept like this requires bulletproof plotting and character motivations in order to suspend our disbelief. If this can't be achieved the filmmakers have a couple of other options at their disposal. Tone, specifically humour, allows us to glance past illogical plot holes. Most of the comparable films made in this genre are satirical. Battle Royale, for sure, had a sharp acerbic wit and Death Race 2000 had similar political overtones but under the guise of a shameless b-movie. The Truman Show figures prominently in the mix as well, but that film had a very direct and effective statement on reality television and voyeurism. The Hunger Games does not appear to allude to anything or have any kind of message. We're simply asked to accept this world as reality without question. It's a world where civilization has devolved to such a bloodthirsty state that the population at large would not only allow this to happen but cheer it on. I didn't buy it for a second.

That said, I don't disapprove of spilling the blood of minors for the sake of entertainment. Indeed, this is what I wanted to see, but I was willing to accept an alternative if there was some kind of intellectually superior substitute. Nope - it turns out to be a love story, setting up a Twilight-like love triangle in the ensuing films.

Blood or not, we don't even get to see some cool action. Gary Ross's abysmally directed action scenes are shot with that generic 'television-style' shaky camera where you don't really see anything. Thus, there is no panache, no flair, no excitement and he avoids bloodshed at all costs, which is most likely the reason for the annoying camerawork. Of course, this goes back to the audience, young adults, the Twilight audience who can't pay to see R-rated movies. There's nothing wrong with that, but it just makes Ross's job more challenging - something at which he sadly fails.

Another shameful creative decision was to portray the other kids in the Games as 'evil', violent baddies who revel in the sport, as opposed to the innocent youth, simply chosen at random by the state. We don't get to know any of the other contestants other than their black and white characterizations.

The only thing to praise in this film is the section after the participants are chosen and before they are put into the arena. It's this 'training period' where we meet Katniss and Peeta's mentors, played by Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson, who engage the pair with genuine affection, forming the strongest relationships in the film. Unfortunately, I think we have to wait until parts 2 and 3 before we see how these relationships play out.


The Hunger Games is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.


noribori said...

So, what made you watch the movie a second time?

You will have to watch it a third time when all four films of the series are finished.

Why couldn't you wait?

Alan Bacchus said...

I wanted to give it another chance. Critical and audience praise was so high, I hoped I would see it a different way the second time around.

Anonymous said...

Normally I am 100% with you on these but I disagree, albeit slightly...I actually enjoyed Hunger Games. I thought the film could have contrasted the two sides (rich vs. extremely poor and beaten down) better but for what it is, I liked it. I could totally see a grittier version but I wasn't disappointed with this version.

Theresa said...

Although I can see where you're coming from with your review, I honestly can say that the film did well considering the material they were working with. The book actually did not dwell much on the characteristics of the other kids on the game. The book - like the film - focused much on the main characters.

noribori said...

I already posted a long comment at your first review of the Hunger Games movie (which is basically the same as this review). Here I try again.

You say "How do you tell a story about such a sick and twisted blood sport which inexorably leads to everyone dying and not have it violent, grisly bloody and thus rated R".

I think that's exactly the point. In my opinion, which seems to be very different from your opinion, the use of a lot of violence doesn't make a movie more realistic. It's in the nature of this kind of entertainment that when we see violence in movies we feel the kick of adrenalin, but at the same time we are also relieved because we know it's only a movie. There's a delicate balance which the director has to meet. If there's too much violence people start laughing because their brain tells them all the time: "it's not real". The movie suddenly is like a cartoon for them, like "Itchy&Scratchy". (And even in real life, when people see grisly bloody accidents, they tend to say "It felt like a movie").

Maybe that's the reason why, as you say, "most of the comparable films made in this genre are satirical." If violence is over the top then it's an obvious decision to combine it with wit and dark humour.

Meeting the balance means making a more realistic movie with few but effective violence. If it's done right, like in many Hitchcock movies, the violence will feel real. People will leave the cinema and say: "That moment didn't feel like a movie", and some will answer: "Yes, it was disgusting", and others will answer "But it was very entertaining".
That's exactly what Hunger Games is not about. Or, I stand corrected, that's exactly what Hunger Games tries to aim at.

The "Hunger Games" story wants the audience to feel the violence as something real but not entertaining. That's the third way to go, and that's not an easy one. Because first of all, a movie must be entertaining.

In order to achieve this impossible task the book/movie is self-referential. The sadistic futuristic society obviously mirrors the audience of today which is fascinated by violence. "I don't disapprove of spilling the blood of minors for the sake of entertainment. Indeed this is what I wanted to see", you said. And at the same time you say "The Hunger Games does not appear to allude to anything, or have any kind of message." That's hard to believe, you know.

Of course, there's a difference. Movie violence is not real, everyone knows that, and that's the difference between a sadist and someone who just wants to be entertained by watching unreal violence in a movie. But what's real? Can you feel what's real? Phantasies are not real, emotions are.

The "Hunger Games" story arc begins with a phantastic theme (games, futuristic society) and then it becomes more and more realistic. Katniss is always trying to find out what's real, and that's often almost impossible. Like the love story in the first book, which is a mixture of real/fake. (Unfortunately, the movie doesn't explain that very well). Other things are better in the movie, like the moment when Katniss is on stage, the audience is applauding, and Katniss suddenly can't hear them, she looses her sense of reality.
The real/unreal theme goes through the whole series, until the bleak part at the end of the trilogy which shows that winning a war is very different from winning a game, even a sadistic game like the Hunger Games.

There's a lot to criticise about the movie, even about the books, and I find myself defending them more often than I should. The books aren't brilliant, just good, and so is the movie. But I like the idea behind them. I like what they are trying to achieve, which is different from a lot of other movies/books.
Why is it that so many people don't understand the basic idea behind it?

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks all, for posting comments. Great discussion!

Unknown said...

This was a really good movie and now I’m very excited for the next one! I’ve read all of the books, before I watched the movie, and I wasn’t sure about how the movie would translate from paper to screen, but a coworker at Dish told me to watch it and I did. Instead of just going out and buying it, I decided to rent it from Blockbuster @ Home and now that I have seen it, I plan on watching it a few more times before I bring it back to the store for another movie. I am very excited to see how the next movie plays out on screen; hopefully it’s just as good as this one!