Friday, March 23, 2012
The Hunger Games
It's finally here, ladies and gentlemen. All the tweeting and status updates indicating Biblical proportions of excitement and anticipation can finally be replaced by tweets and status updates indicating Biblical proportions of satisfaction and eagerness for the other two films in the trilogy. It's only Friday, but in all likelihood The Hunger Games will top box office records for a brief period - or maybe longer. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is holding steady in the high 80's, and the overwhelming critical reaction has been largely positive - with good reason.
Set in a dystopian world, The Hunger Games follows 16 year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who volunteers to take her sister's place in an annual competition. Well, *competition* might be putting it lightly. Each year, the 12 districts of Panem (the post-apocalyptic North American nation in which the film is set) each send one male and one female between the ages of 12 - 18 to compete in a nationally televised battle to the death. It's like a dystopian Superbowl...except everyone has to watch it and there are no viral commercials. Katniss goes to The Capitol - the technologically advanced seat of power in Panem - and is put through 2 weeks of training and advertisement in an attempt to gain sponsors to help her odds in the Games. Meanwhile, the other 23 contestants are all doing the same thing; including Peeta, (Josh Hutcherson) the other contestant chosen from Katniss' district. What follows is a game of wits, survivalism, shaky camera work, and social commentary.
Here's my two-bits worth on the whole affair.
The first major point this film scores for me is on some of the casting. There are a myriad of familiar faces from Woody Harrelson (who plays the two protagonists' mentor, Haymitch) to Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Lenny Kravitz. I'm personally a huge fan of Harrelson and Tucci, but even they are outshined by the stellar performance at the core of this film, courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence. She's proven she's got the chops for confident performances in Winter's Bone and The Beaver, and here she adds another notch in her belt. She exudes the kind of steely reserve that forms the foundation of her character, but she also manages to work in moments of vulnerability that I found truly moving. This movie could have completely faltered had her performance been even a little hesitant, but she jumps right in with everything she's got and the film is all the stronger for it.
As much can be said of Hutcherson, her co-star, who proves he's got what it takes to make it in the Hollywood big leagues...ya know, once he's outgrown the teen heartthrob phase. He and Lawrence both have some pretty solid onscreen chemistry and as much it broke my heart to admit it, I found myself enjoying their screen time more than the Oscar-winning/nominated performers around them.
The art direction of the film is also magnificent, particularly the costume design. The Panem districts largely wallow in a kind of pre-1900s limbo when it comes to housing and clothing design - almost like something out of a western film. The Capitol on the other hand is filled to the brim with a very retro-futurism; people wearing bright colors with extravagant hair, head-dress, and makeup.
Having not read the books, I can't really comment on how well the film stacks up. What I've been told by those who've read the book is that while invariably "the book is better," The Hunger Games does a good job of staying largely true to the source material. And speaking as someone who hadn't read the books, I can attest to the fact that the film does a great job of "filling in" those unknowing members of the audience. And it does so without dragging in exposition, as well.
Remember the Bourne movies? Well, more specifically, remember how dizzy you felt coming out of those movies? All the shaky camerawork made for some frenetic action scenes and high-adrenaline cinematography, but it definitely took its toll. The first thing you'll likely notice about The Hunger Games is that apparently no one on set believed in dollies, cranes, jibs or steadicams. Almost every minute of the movie is shot with a handheld camera - or made to look so. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. But couple that with a LOT of extreme closeups and it makes for a difficult viewing experience. To top it off, there are times when it looks as though the camera is *deliberately* being shaken to "emphasize" the action. But instead of drawing the audience in further, the effect alienates because it's damn near impossible to even see what's going on amidst the motion blurs. I felt as though I only saw about half of the actual movie because so much of it was made so deliberately shaky. Perhaps that was intentional - to convey the chaos to the audience in a palpable way. If that was the aim, the film *still* misses the mark because it's too disheveled to even experience the violence and chaos viscerally; it's just annoying.
I've got nothing against Lenny Kravitz as a musician - but he's not cut out for acting, not yet anyway. His role is fortunately rather small, but the guy needs some pretty serious acting lessons. Similarly Woody Harrelson - whom I normally find to be almost always on the money - turns in one of the lesser performances of his career. It's not abysmal, but to watch him you'd never know the man had been nominated for multiple Oscars.
Maybe this is a sign that I'm beginning to reach an age where there's a distinct gap between me and the next generation, but I'm a little puzzled as to what all the fuss is about here - ignoring the fact that the first book/movie in this trilogy is essentially Battle Royale. It's not a bad movie, by any stretch of the imagination, but the entire time watching it I was struck by a general lack of gripping enjoyment. I did enjoy myself, and maybe I just allowed myself to get caught up in all the hype because - let's face it - if you know what the internet is, you've probably seen more references to The Hunger Games than food, sleep, or even friend-drama.
Maybe I just heard "It's so good." too many times and as a result nothing could have possibly met the expectations that were arbitrarily set for this film by those around me. I can see its merits, I can see why the young adult crowd really ate up the books and are eating up this film. But I think that's part of why I'm unable to really connect with the material: because it's geared to teens and pre-teens there's a lot of "sanitation" the story has to undergo. The almost unbearable sexual tension between the two leads never really gets resolved, the violence has to be cleaned up and made less "in-your-face," and they'll be damned if the film doesn't unnecessarily cut back to Gale (the third point of an emerging love triangle amongst Katniss, Peeta, and the aforementioned) every few minutes to remind the high school girls in the audience that we're barreling towards another "Team Jacob/Team Edward" clash for the sake of merchandising.
Maybe if I had read the books when they came out, or if I were a few years younger (or both), I might have had a higher opinion of The Hunger Games. The movie is undeniably entertaining for the most part, and I think Jennifer Lawrence is definitely well on her way to becoming a familiar face in the nominee pool during awards season. That aside, I can't say I'm in any rush to see the next two movies - though I'm sure I will when they come out. If you loved the books, are looking forward to the movie, or what have you - don't let this review sour your expectations because you're probably among the majority who are making this movie the blockbuster it apparently is. And more power to you; this one just wasn't my cup of tea.
Apparently, the odds were never in my favor.