March 27, 2012 -- My big questions going into this were: 1. Is this just an elaborate excuse for showing sexy chicks with guns (or, in this case a bow)? 2. Is this just an elaborate excuse (as in Hanna) to try to make you feel empathy for some pretty girl as she kills a bunch of people? The answer is no to both questions. That just leaves the main question: How good is it? The answer is that it is better than any of the Twilight movies, which isn't saying much, but it isn't bad. It is just barely O.K.
“The Hunger Games” did remind me a bit of the “Twilight” series in that both are based on popular books and the studios did not spend a lot of money making them. Here are some interesting figures, the Disney studio spent $250 million making “John Carter,” (comparable to the more expensive films in the “Harry Potter” series) while Lionsgate spent a mere $78 million making “The Hunger Games.” Reportedly, Lionsgate was strapped for cash when they made this movie, and had to raid the budgets from other projects to find this much money to make it. In effect, they put all their eggs in this one basket, and the gamble worked for them, financially, at least.
Neither the “Twilight” nor the “Hunger Games” film series are particularly ambitious (at least so far) artistically, nor in terms of resources spent, and neither does more than regurgitate the book plots up on screen. Both of these series look more like TV series than a series of movies. The studios are beahaving as if they don't have to spend the resources to make these high quality movies because fans of the books will come to see them anyway. So far, this strategy is paying off for them.
“The Hunger Games” looks a lot like a reality TV game show, because that is exactly what “The Hunger Games” are, reality TV games. Note: I hate reality TV. Like so many things, Paddy Chayefsky predicted this sort of base entertainment in his award-winning screenplay for the film “Network.”
This story takes place in a dystopian future in which each of 12 districts must select teenagers to participate in “The Hunger Games.” These children hunt each other. They fight to the death until only one person is left standing. The victor is rewarded with wealth and fame. In the film (I did not read any of the books, but they have got to be better than the film) some of the districts produce contestants who train hard for the games and who are very skilled. Other districts, like District 12 where the heroine, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence of “X-Men: First Class”) comes from, choose people in a drawing. This generates contestants (called “tributes”) who are not combat-ready survivalists, and they are predictably killed quickly.
This makes no sense, of course. If wealth and fame go to the victor, as opposed to the hardscrabble life in the districts, there are going to be plenty of young men and women willing to defy death and try for the big prize in the games. There would be tryouts, auditions, contests and playoffs, all televised of course, until the final two tributes are selected from each district. It would be good TV. This is what happens in real life. You wouldn't expect to get much entertainment if you picked “American Idol” contestants by drawing names from the general population. In the movie, Katniss volunteers to become a tribute to take the place of her younger sister who was chosen by chance. This, of course, makes her a more sympathetic character.
After a short bit of training come the actual games, which are shown both from Katniss' viewpoint, and from behind the scenes where various people manipulate the games by remote control and members of the ruling class decide who wins and who dies. The highest ruler seems to be President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland of “Outbreak”). He says the purpose of the Hunger Games is to give people hope. How you get any hope from the games without being a participant is not really explained, in the movie at least. Snow is not pleased with the way these particular Hunger Games come out and he eliminates a games high official because he is angry. I suspect his motive will become clearer in the next two movies of this series. They sure weren't clear in this one.
As you would expect, Katniss, a skilled hunter, is great with a bow, but is no stone killer. She kills people, but only in self defense. She mourns the loss of another (ridiculously young) contestant who saved her life and pulls a smart bluff to avoid killing another contestant. There is a sort of romance between Katniss and the other District 12 tribute, Peeta Millark (Josh Hutcherson of “The Kids are All Right”).
Based on what I had read before about this series, I was expecting more action and more of a love story. There is some action and some romance in the film. I suppose it is difficult to have a real romance in the midst of a life-and-death struggle. I suspect there will be more of a romance in the second film. I had real problems with the hand-held camera shots in the film. There was way too much camera motion in the shots. It looked like the cameras were mounted in a boat on a stormy sea. I was getting sea sick with all this rocking and waving. They needed more Steadicams® in the budget.
If you are an adult and haven't read the book on which this film is based, you might have a similar reaction to mine, and that is, “what's all the fuss about?” This film has a big built-in audience and benefits from a massive online marketing campaign in social media, which explains the record-setting ticket sales. Viewed objectively, it is not that different from a lot of other Hollywood movies. Famed filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard reportedly once wrote in a journal, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” That is pretty close to what you have in this movie when you get down to it.
Obviously, there are some political and cultural implications in a story in which poor people are forced to fight for their lives for the entertainment of a rich and decadent ruling class. It is the logical future extension of what football is now and what gladiatorial combat was in the days of Rome. Is this the “bread and circuses” that keep the mob distracted and under control? In one scene a mob goes out of control when a child from that district is killed in the games, so that didn't work as planned. All this is given a very superficial treatment in the film, as is the romance and the action.
As for the criticism of Jennifer Lawrence being too fat to play Katniss in this film, that is a good example of ignoring the beam in one's own eye. It's the sort of shallow, sexist argument used by those who said Michelle Williams didn't deserve the Academy Award for her performance in “My Week With Marilyn” because her breasts weren't shaped right. The cavemen critics are on the loose again. They reflect badly on all of us. Lawrence is the best thing in this film. This film rates a C+.
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