The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Hunger Games

Goodness knows who I am disappointing in this matter, but The Hunger Games is probably the best blockbuster film I’ve seen in years.

Which isn’t, unfortunately, to say it’s a great movie.  It suffers from a lot of the same problems all blockbusters do, and as is the case with all of us, it can’t escape its raisin’, but we’ll get to that.  (The usual caveat:  I haven’t read the books on which the movie is based, and I have no interest in doing so.)  It’s hardly necessary, I assume, to bother with the plot, since about four billion more people saw the movie than are going to read this post, but here goes:  in a post-apocalyptic America run by a decadent elite, an annual death-sport tournament is held pitting teenagers from all over the country against one another.  Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (an excellent Jennifer Lawrence), takes her sister’s place in the tourney, and must come to terms with her feelings for another boy from her district and the fact that the game is manipulated by its designers to produce a specific result meant to placate any tendencies towards rebellion.

Director Gary Ross is also a screenwriter (he’s responsible for Big) and he co-wrote the script with the book’s creator, which may account for the fact that it’s more coherent than most films of this type — it seems to have been written of a piece rather than assembled out of the neat ideas of a dozen producers and focus groups.  Note that I don’t say the thing makes any sense; it does not.  But that’s forgivable in any genre, as long as the production is good enough to carry it along; that’s the case with about the first hour, hour-and a half of The Hunger Games.  (It’s too long by about half, at two hours and twenty-two minutes.)  The film does a decent job of establishing the hardscrabble rural life of Katniss and her family; I could have done with more of the always excellent Paula Malcolmson (Deadwood‘s Trixie) as her mother, but overall it does a fine job of tone-setting.  The “reaping”, or process of selection, of her coal-mining district’s representatives at the games carries with it an aura of genuine dread and menace, and while we never see them engage in much direct violence, the white-clad state police are viewed with terror by almost everyone.  The other representative from the district is Peeta Mellark, the son of the local baker; the actor playing him, Josh Hutcherson, can’t keep up with Lawrence, but his character is interestingly drawn — he initially picks up on the public relations aspect of the games much quicker than Katniss, and the predictable romantic angle between them is played quite cynically all along.  His character is also deepened by the fact that he’s one of the few people of status in an impoverished community, which makes their relationship even thornier.

In fact, one of the more interesting things about the early goings of The Hunger Games is the way it treats social class and status.  While it’s not a very deep critique, the mere fact that it’s a blockbuster movie that’s willing to address (albeit at the remove of science-fictional unreality) something that most American films are downright allergic to makes for some fascinating moments.  The first time the two see the Capitol, with its gleaming white towers and high-speed railways, they react like the hicks they are; but once they arrive, they view it with the eyes of a paisan seeing Rome at its most decadent.  Ross plays this up to amusing effect; the denizens of the capital form parades of the grotesque, wearing outlandish clothes and hairstyles, soaked in luxury, and, frankly, effeminate.  (Stanley Tucci does a particularly juicy job as the Hunger Games compére, Caesar Flickerman, and it’s fun to watch Wes Bentley’s oily games-master go from supremely unruffled to awkward and desperate.)

The casting of extras is acutely notable in The Hunger Games; most of the competitors are predictably perfect teenagers (an unlikely outcome, given that the reaping is supposed to be conducted by random chance), but the adults — whether they’re bystanders and spectators or technicians and authority figures — are a commandingly weird-looking lot, which enhances the idea that adults must seem monstrous to young people in a world where the kids are ritually slaughtered every year for the sins of their parents.  And the more time we spent in the capital, the more I wished the action would stay there; the set design (primarity by Philip Messina, also responsible for Freaks & GeeksTraffic, and Che, among others) is quite eye-catching.  It’s distinctly modern, but to my eyes, it also recalled some of the more memorable ’70s dystopian sci-fi, something that I’m sure was no accident.   The brushed whites, huge empty spaces lit from the bottom, and buzzing, lively populations of circus-clad residents gave it that quality of back-lot dystopia while taking advantage of the piles of money that no doubt went into production.

There were a few flaws in the early goings, including some training sequences straight out of every other movie of this sort ever made; and while Woody Harrelson is competent enough in his role as an embittered wastrel who won an earlier Hunger Game, his journey from the bottle to being Katniss’ advocate is pretty tedious.  But one thing shows through remarkably well in these sequences:  these are kids.  The script requires them to be implausibly athletic and competent, but they’re twitchy, uncertain, nervous, and scared; even the best of them (a small group from a wealthy district that trains in anticipation of being selected) never seem to know what’s coming next and are easily traumatized by every cruelty demanded of them.  Scenes where Katniss and Peeta sit alone, his leg bouncing manically like a hormone-shook home-roomer, do a lot to establish what a fucked-up mess the whole scenario is.  There’s precious little suspense to be had — even for those who have never read the book, it’s glaringly obvious what the outcome is going to be, and that Katniss’ life is never really endangered; but the convincing teenage behavior of Lawrence and a few of the other cast members at least sells the illusion of stakes.

A lot has been made of The Hunger Games’ similarity, intentional or not, to the Japanese sci-fi flick Battle Royale.  Since that’s one of my favorite action films, you might expect me to judge The Hunger Games more harshly, but the comparisons are really only skin deep, and the two movies are striving for totally different tones.  Battle Royale is a claustrophobic, hopeless and cruel film, while The Hunger Games, while it has its dark and cynical moments, is a wide-screen production all the way with an epic feel and a long, broad arc.  Beyond that, what drives Battle Royale‘s action and propels its taut emotional energy is the fact that all the kids assigned to murder one another are from the same high school class; they know each other well.  They’re best friends and enemies and intimates, and that makes the decision to kill or be killed take on a screechingly personal quality.  In The Hunger Games, none of the participants from different districts know one another, and even ones from the same area are often strangers; the focus is instead on the spectacle and its political ramifications (in Battle Royale, we really don’t even know if anyone is watching other than the government.)  The similarities are certainly there, but they’re not worth making a big deal over.

Ross also deserves credit for keeping the frenzied cross-cutting and multiple-angle camerawork that sinks so many action movies these days to a minimum; he does a good job of letting the movement in front of him sit for a while and build instead of assuming we’ll get bored and check our phones if he doesn’t give us an edit every three seconds.  Sidled with the execrable James Newton Howard working the score, he also does valiant work in keeping the composer’s overwrought telegraphy out of a decent number of scenes.

Unfortunately, it’s not all bread and circuses in Panem.  This is, of course, an action movie, and it eventually has to settle into action-movie clichés in its much duller second half.  Once the Games finally get started (the movie builds up some nice tension to get them started, but it’s a pretty long journey), they kick of with a pretty exciting sequence as a dozen kids are slaughtered right off the bat while gathering supplies, but that’s about the last of the worthwhile slam-bang moments.  Katniss is almost immediately subjected to a goofy-looking artificial forest fire that seems to exist for no reason whatsoever than to have a bunch of CGI explosions muck up the screen, and a clever scene where she’s caught up a tree and drops a hornet’s nest on her pursuers is so clumsily staged and filmed that it saps all the impact.  Most of the raw emotion and nervousness of the early scenes is long gone by this point in the film, and since there’s never any doubt as to the outcome, it starts to seem like an exercise in futility to stick around.  I’d love to have seen more of a scene where one of the oppressed districts — comprised largely, it appears, of African-Americans — breaks out into furious rioting when one of their own is killed, but a brief scene aside, that thread is dropped pretty quickly.  By the end of the movie, when Katniss and Peeta are being chased by some of the gamma-irradiated super-dogs from Ang Lee’s version of The Hulk, I began to wish I was watching another movie for the first time.

Overall, though, a straightforward filming style, a handful of solid performances, a depth of social observation unusual for the genre, and some great visual design made The Hunger Games worth a dozen other jillion-dollar spectacles.  It wasn’t a great movie, but it was a lot better than I expected for a film adaptation of a crazily popular young-adult novel series.  And while I know it’s just the first gear in a massive marketing engine (which, if patterns of the past hold, will suck lemons by the third installment), if we have to have big franchise movies, this one sure beats most of the alternatives.

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