30 March 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

(Dir: Gary Ross, 2012)

The Hunger Games is one of those films that has been hyped like crazy, but having been unaware of the books until only a few months ago it was something of a surprise to see it getting so much attention. And then it goes and blows the US box office away on its opening weekend, showing there were plenty of fans out there bubbling over with enough fervent excitement to justify the hype, and that I clearly have no idea what’s going on in popular literature.

I guess most people will therefore know the plot, but for those who don't... it’s the future, there is a strong class divide between rich and poor, and as a result of an attempted rebellion many years earlier, the twelve districts of the land must each offer up one boy and one girl who will all fight to the death in a televised survival tournament known as 'the Hunger Games', where there can be only one winner. We follow Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) on her journey from the forests of District 12 to the big city, where she must train, perform and then eventually compete in and try to survive the tournament, alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her male ally from her district. 

You would be right in thinking that the plot isn’t entirely original, with similar ideas covered by Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders and The Running Man, which itself was based on a novel. However the lack of originality is not detrimental to the film because it’s not an idea that’s been done to death yet, and as we move ever forward in time these ideas have started to seem gradually more prescient. The other element in The Hunger Games’  favour is the rich world and environment that’s been created, which gives it enough personality to stand on its own. Its future date is unspecified, but as standard in sci-fi there are cultural changes in style and fashion, politics and of course an advancement in technology.

This is very much a film of two halves. The first half establishes the selection of Katniss for the games and her familial roots struggling in an outlying district, which leads into the wonder of the big city and the requisite training and survival preparation, alongside participating in the popularity contest that is the show. Which is followed by the main event itself, where the teens are let loose with weapons in what is essentially a controlled environment. It’s difficult to say which is the better half. I enjoyed the establishment of the world and gradual revealing of the politics at play and the overall rules, but on the flip side there’s the excitement of watching the game itself and figuring out how it’s all going to go down, as well as the development of relationships, tactical and genuine, between some of the different participants.

Yet this amplifies one of the issues with The Hunger Games - there is too much exposition and information crammed in, meaning certain parts start to feel superfluous. Yes, that's the common problem with adaptations of books. The first half is probably unnecessarily long, but likewise the actual games start to drag and could’ve done with being more concise too. Also, the games don’t really have much of an impact as they feel pretty toothless. Understandably, as the film is targeting the same teen audience as the novel, most of the death and violence happens off screen and you only see snippets - there were a lot of blades in use for example but I saw virtually no blood. Conceptually this is all very adult, but I question whether this idea can be effectively explored when aimed at a younger audience, as its power comes from seeing the carnage rather than shying away from it. Comparatively, Battle Royale is an incredibly brutal and ruthless film which is compellingly believable, and so does a better job of showing the futility and pointlessness of the young fighting each other and dying.

My only other real complaint is that some of the visual effects are pretty ropey at times, but they’re not a deal breaker. Conversely it’s a well cast film with a decent line up of actors. Lawrence is good as Katniss, she's both likeable and easy to root for, and since Winter’s Bone she’s definitely become an actress to look out for. Hutcherson plays Peeta cleverly as you’re never totally sure where he stands, which adds extra intrigue. Stanley Tucci clearly had great fun playing a talk show host and Woody Harrelson plays the mentor well, whilst the rest of the cast are fine.

The Hunger Games isn’t a groundbreaking film but I liked and enjoyed it. Yes I was ultimately disappointed that it had such a teen friendly rating as I continuously wanted to see it go further than it did, but it still has a lot to offer and does have some ideas of its own. Interestingly the film I kept being reminded of was The Truman Show, primarily because of the hyper-real environment of the games with a lot of control coming down from above, but also the social comment about the reality tv show that everyone seems to need to watch. There was even one moment where I fully expected to hear Christof say, “That’s our hero shot”. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay The Hunger Games is to say that when it finished I was left wanting to know where the story will go in the next film, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

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