Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Hunger Games

Welcome, welcome to The Hunger Games, the first event motion picture of 2012, and the solidly crafted first chapter of Suzanne Collins' monstrously successful trilogy.  Set in an undetermined time in future, the events are set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian universe where North America is separated in twelve districts, all controlled by a wealthy and corrupt Capitol.  Each year, one young man and one young woman aged 12-18 are selected from each district to compete in The Hunger Games.  Now in it's 74th year, the Games are a fight to death, Battle Royale-style gladiatorial event where one person comes out as victor, all of which is televised as the ultimate reality show competition.  The insidiousness of the event is really that's mere fear mongering on the side of the Capitol, the Games were invented as a result of a ruthless uprising that threatened the one-percenters of Collins' fiction.  That the story, incredibly dark and quite violent, have struck such a pop-cultural chord in this, the age of great young adult fiction being dominated by the likes of properties like Twilight remain a fascination.  But one thing is clear, even for the uninitiated-- The Hunger Games has a striking narrative, cold but gentle, and gravitates towards strong very human themes and ideas, such that feel less packaged and media-ready than most in demand titles for tweens.

Brought to the screen by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) and co-written by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), The Hunger Games starts strong by firmly and decisively painting a day-in-the-life the impoverished District 12, the home of our heroine-- Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence.)  Poor and starving, the locals of the coal-rich district as first almost seen to represent the citizens of Lawrence's breakout-- the Ozark villagers of Winter's Bone.  Katniss is almost a twin to that prior Lawrence character herself-- young, pretty and intelligent, but met with challenges that far exceed her maturity, including the nurturing of her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields), as her mother is an invalid, and her father long passed on.  She's also a tremendous shot-- a master of the bow and arrow is something essential.  As the Games commence-- first in a garish presentation where the sad, weary children watch in fear as Capitol secretary Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks in unsightly decadent garb and make-up) announces the winners (or losers) chosen in lottery as the "tributes" of District 12.  The winners are, as all knows by now, Katniss and Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right), an awkward young boy who once gave a starving Katniss bread.

The two recruits are off to the Capitol to begin the Games, and this is where The Hunger Games really hits its stride as a science fiction, social commentary and vivid production landscapes.  The two tributes are groomed in the arts of being appealing.  Probably the most candid bit of commentary the future hits off the best is the sneaking nature of celebrity, for our tributes fates are simply seen as entertainment.  (Collins' has noted that the idea spawned from channel surfing between Iraq War news coverage and reality entertainment.)  Katniss, as admirably played by Lawrence, is a no-nonsense, grounded creature, unamused with the idea of putting on a show-- survival is her concern, not vanity nor absurd notions of likeability.  Peeta, on the other hand, a less skillful hunter, thrives on playing the game, not physical prowess to move forward-- the biggest flaw of the film is likely the development of Peeta, either wanly portrayed by Hutcherson, or uninterested by the filmmakers who appear in awe of Lawrence from first frame to fade out.  It's in the events leading up to the Game itself that lend itself, however, artistic license for the daring, as evident by the fun production design and garish costuming that while tonally all over the place, do their job in distilling the dichotomy of the haves versus the have-nots.  It's especially striking that for such an event-like film, the visual effects have such a low-key quality to them, that miraculously doesn't feel like the efforts of money-conscious production team, but surprisingly artful in an earthy, toned down sort of way.

It's a shame that The Hunger Games slightly loses its spark when the Games themselves actually begin.  Left behind with smatterings of ideas of power, government, impoverishment and celebrity-- it really is a case of a bunch of kids trying to kill one another.  But more than that, the filmmakers really make it the Jennifer Lawrence show-- the other tributes (save for Peeta) are given so few minutes of screen time, one could hardly care for the results.  Instead it's a bit of seemingly endless shots of Katniss running, Katniss sleeping, Katniss crying.  There are moments, like when she befriends a young fellow tribute named Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a plucky, scared girl who reminds Katniss of her younger sister that sparks a bit of an emotional connection.  And there's a jolting subplot of Katniss' relationship with Peeta-- playfully and thankfully ambiguous (Liam Hemsworth plays the hunky neighborhood boy Katniss flirts with before the Games)-- that moves the action forward, there's still an all to too soft pace for a film that started so swiftly and entertainingly.  For in the end, The Hunger Games is still a fairly merciless tale, one that doesn't have the comfort to stop and slow down for emotional beats, but one that has to keep on the move, distrusting of all, and creepily and calculatedly monitored by an unjust Capitol promising a blood bath (and a firm warning) for its viewers.

There's still lots to recommend, from the unfussy, naturally hued cinematography by Tom Stern, to the gorgeously restrained score by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard.  Blessed with an easy going, lightness from director Ross, there's an even more ominous nature to The Hunger Games-- it's filmed and staged so softly, that the brutality feels even sneakier.  There's also a plum lead performance delivered by Lawrence, who while possibly carving out the most narrow niche ever for a younger actress (the earthy, street wise youngster carrying the world on her soldiers while being raised in near poverty), she's aces as Katniss, honestly portraying a strong girl, unsure of the magnitude of her own strength, but afraid more of letting an ounce of vulnerability from surfacing.  At first, Katniss has tremendous difficulty in getting people to like her, but Lawrence achieves that in the first few minutes.  I suppose I look forward to the second chapter...B

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