Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The Hunger Games"

 2.5 / 5 

The Hunger Games misses a fascinating opportunity to be the rarest kind of mainstream film: an angry satire.  Instead of, as the book's dust jacket offers, exploring "the effects of war and violence on those coming of age," this big-budget, high-stakes adaptation of a thoughtful novel is instead a movie that accepts the notion that kids killing kids could be mainstream entertainment.

No, not could be.  It is.

With its determination to be as faithful as possible to its source material rather than using it merely as a foundation, The Hunger Games never really pauses to reflect on the idea that adults have decided not only to pit children against each other, but that an entire industry -- an entire culture -- has been built around the central notion of a massive reality show in which there will be only one survivor, literally.  He or she will be the person who murders the most competitors.

It's a distasteful premise, but The Hunger Games was a literary sensation, so a film version had to be made.  As such, it's a skillful film, filled with compelling, heroic performances.  But it's also a film afraid to take a stance; it neither stops to reflect on the concept long enough to reach any conclusions, or be vicious enough as an action-thriller.  The Hunger Games is mostly toothless, when it should be gnashing those teeth in anger or satirical derision.

For, indeed, we live in a society that is perilously close to the one depicted here, when fortunes are made by people who create entertainment that looks uncomfortably like "The Hunger Games" the TV show.  The basic idea is this: As retribution for a violent uprising 75 years earlier, a central government has decreed that two children from each district in its vast purview will fight to the death in a televised reality show.

Over time, this has become big business.  The entire year, it seems, revolves around the Hunger Games, though just why the people are hungry enough to play these games is glossed over in the film version.  The lottery to determine the players is won (or lost, depending on how you look at it) by two kids from District 12, this fictional nation's version of Appalachia.  Katniss Everdeen (the luminous, determined Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, stalwart and brave) are the contestants.

A long, engaging sequence shows their preparations in the Capitol City (never mind the actual definition of the word "capitol," which has only one meaning in English; this is the spelling we're given), a place that looks a bit like the Wicked version of Oz crossed with Logan's Run.  It's the best part of the movie, by far, convincing in its attitude and mesmerizing in the way not a single person stops to think -- these are children here.  The sequence ends with a quiet, lovely exchange of dialogue between Katniss and Peeta ... and then the Games begin.

But how can there be cheering for this kind of sport?  The Hunger Games wants us to be happy when Katniss or Peeta gets the upper hand, but I found it impossible ever to forget what we are witnessing here.  That said, both Lawrence and Hutcherson give mesmerizing performances, committing themselves so fully to the characters that they unintentionally beg some questions.  The biggest is, If these kids are so smart, what if they just refuse to play the game?  What would happen if no one played?  The book at least hints at the answers; the movie has no time for nuance and ambiguity.

There are other big plot concerns.  The game is played under a man-made dome, something that comes clear almost by accident.  There are deus ex machina moments galore, some built into the game (wealthy sponsors can send care packages to players they like), some not -- only when it's convenient for the plot do we learn that the big, sci-fi-looking Control Room can create obstacles out of whole cloth.  Need a giant, snarling beast to take down a player?  Coming right up.  It's both too convenient and too arbitrary.

More damaging from a storytelling standpoint is that there are just too many characters.  Like the Harry Potter adaptations, it's impossible to keep track of who's who unless you've read every word of the books.

Likely, most of the audience will have done just that.  For them, the death of one key supporting player may feel real and vital; to non-readers, it seems more like another plot point checked off a list.

Shot in almost relentless close-up, the movie tries hard to get us to care, but the outcome is too pat and clear right from the start.  And by the time the winning move is made, the feeling is less catharsis than a simple relief that the thing is over.

The script may sacrifice moments of clarity or perspective in order to put all of the important bits from the book on screen, but the actors give it their all and the production is handsome and sometimes witty to look at.

More emotionally compelling than the Harry Potter movies, The Hunger Games is starkly effective as entertainment, but never tries to comment on what it's showing.  What could have (and possibly should have) been burning, timely satire instead is a sleek, high-end Hollywood product that offers up death as sport with nary a nod of the head, wink of the eye or disapproving scowl from the filmmakers.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old grown-up, the fact that it's all so entertainingly and slickly told, and that so much money and time was lavished upon the need to get death and violence to look this good, is more than a little worrisome.

Viewed March 27, 2012 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks

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