Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) – Review

Review: The Hunger Games is exciting with both an interesting story and socially relevant overtones, but much of the dramatic tension is lost due to the narrative being too easy on its main character Katniss Everdeen. The film is about Katniss, a young girl from a poor, predominately coil-mining District 12 (taking place in a future North America called Panem) who volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her sister who is chosen (the Hunger Games is an annual event that see two young people volunteer or randomly chosen, one girl one boy, who much fight till death until only one remains). The overlying world that the story takes place in sees a stark difference between the wealthy Capitol (where everyone looks like huge David Bowie glam fans circa 1972 and everything is decadent and frivolous) and District 12 where many struggle just to make ends meet. The juxtaposition of these two places plays metaphorically as a comparison (in a way) between places with severe poverty, starvation, oppression and the debilitating effects of war or tribal/group in-fighting and how they perceive those that are well-off (which is America in many cases). As the story is told through the perspective of Katniss, who is from such a place of extreme poverty, it makes complete sense that director Gary Ross would present the Capitol in the manner that he does (all silliness and lust for blood) – it harkens back to the Roman Republic and its pension for slaves fighting in the arena for entertainment. Ross’s visual contrast between District 12 and the Capitol is also very evident and works well – the Capitol is bright, clean and colorful, while District 12 is very plain, dirty and almost void of color. Ross handles the action well (though not great) given the film is only rated PG-13 (when it probably could have been R, and maybe should have been to get across more the sheer intensity and reality of what these characters are being asked to do and what they do inflict upon each other – the film does show some violence, but shies away from the more raw and frightening nature of these characters and themes; there is nothing as vivid as Piggy’s death in Lord of the Flies for example), which allows the narrative to be thrilling in places and pull viewers into the story. Really, the visual portrayal of the world in which the story takes place is Ross’s finest achievement in the film. However, he does falter with his narrative structure and characters, which does hold this back from being a wonderful sci-fi action drama. Narratively speaking, Ross is very inefficient, leaving the pacing very slow at times. Many scenes drag on too long and character moments are missed or not utilized to their best effect. While much of the film is spent developing Katniss (which is a good thing), the audience is still not given enough to really know her and her motivations (aside from outwardly superficial veiled ploys). The audience is not quite in tune with what she is thinking, leaving her emotions at the end unclear (and while I realize they are unclear to her as well, the viewer is not given enough to know that she actually is torn at all, or that she is just playing a game and character within the Hunger Games – it is not clear because the connection with the audience is just not there, and that is on Ross as the performance is quite good). It would have also been nice to get to know the other main competitors as well instead of only stereotyped narrative roles. Peeta, the other tribute for District 12, has some character development, but his motivations seem so all over the map that he is dramatically untrustworthy, and thus hard to connect with as well. The novel is the basis for the film, but should not be a prerequisite to know the characters (that is just sloppy filmmaking, as the two are entirely separate). The biggest issue however is with how easy the narrative makes it for Katniss. She is never faced with any tough choices. Volunteering to save her sister was easy, as that is what her character would do and it is heroic. The competitors she does play a role in killing are all deemed ‘evil’ by the narrative. It would have been far more interesting to the narrative and her character if she had to make an authentically difficult decision (like killing an innocent, or choosing between living and a friend). Plus, anytime she is in trouble, the narrative helps her out. She never has to get her hands dirty or survive at the dire moment on her own (and I found it very frustrating and disappointing from a character perspective; as this narrative seems to be ineffectual). Katniss is essentially the same person at the end of the game; she just knows how to play it better. The Hunger Games is visually and thematically very engaging and Katniss is a strong heroine, but the narrative and character development lack true visceral impact (which is really too bad).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Having seen Gary Ross’s other two films (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit), it is hard to make the connection between this and those two films as being from the same director. The Hunger Games tonally and stylistically are much different (Seabiscuit is essentially just a throwaway sappy manipulative Hollywoodized drama, while Pleasantville is an interesting look at the change in American values and the American family from the 1950s to the 1990s, while also serving as an allegory for the struggle for civil rights). Ross shoots The Hunger Games with brilliant photographer Tom Stern to be very gritty using a steadicam style (the pseudo-documentary shaky-cam style), evoking the feeling of being in the action, while his past work has a much more classically clean and standard visual style. And, while there are social analogies to today’s world in this film, they are only superficially touched on (though I suspect that they will be explored further in the subsequent films). At its heart, this is a character piece, but Ross does not quite get the dramatic moments right. The music by T-Bone Burnett (who produced the film’s accompanying soundtrack) and the score by James Newton Howard work well as accompaniment to the visual experience (the Mockingjay theme is quite good and memorable – which is fairly critical for big franchises, think of John Williams’s themes for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and so on as the top-end examples). Back to cinematographer Tom Stern, his work is very good along with production designer Philip Messina. The visual contrast and color palette between District 12 and the Capitol (expanded on above) is striking, and sets up all the emotional and social over and undertones for the narrative and characters. The film features a lot of characters, many of which do not receive ample attention. That said, Willow Shields, Amandla Stenberg, Donald Sutherland, and especially Woody Harrelson are very good in support. Josh Hutcherson is good as Peeta (though his character is a bit emotional frenetic), and he does have some chemistry with his co-star. Jennifer Lawrence, who was already a budding star for her critically acclaimed work in Winter’s Bone, is now a huge star with her performance as Katniss. Despite her character not being given dynamic dramatic moments (which are generally key for great cinematic characters and performances), she is very good in the role, playing her to be vulnerable but also resilient, smart and good at putting up a guise of fake emotions.

Summary & score: While there is a lot to like from The Hunger Games (both narratively and from the characters), it fails to create authentically powerful dramatic moments for its principal characters. 7/10

1 comment:

  1. The film doesn’t really get going until they actually do get to The Hunger Games, but when it does get started up its entertaining, tense, unpredictable, and very well executed from Gary Ross. I also couldn't believe that this was his 3rd film after other flicks such as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, which are both good but are different from this one. Still though, great jobs from everybody involved and I cannot wait for the sequel. Good review Geoffrey.