By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Review: The Hunger Games
“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important.”
This quote, from Broadcast News, is always reliable. Written by Jim Brooks, spoken by Albert Brooks (no relation), it is one of the movie world’s clearest statements about lowering the bar gently, even enjoyably, until we all live in Hell.
And so goes The Hunger Games. The film is loaded with actors who are undeniably likeable and gifted. The concept is very compelling. The adapted/director has glossy skills behind the camera and a gift of dialogue.
So why is the movie like eating the white of a hard boiled egg with no salt, pepper, or any other flavor except “white?”
Simply, it does not have the courage of its conceit. Not for a minute.
The movie is about a nation that went through a rebellion 80 years before this story and a fascistic government which after putting down the rebellion, keeps down the 12 rebellious districts as best they can. One tool is The Hunger Games, an annual contest that selects 2 children from each rebel district to battle in a only-one-survivor show. 24 kids. 23 will die.
Katniss, played by budding superstar Jennifer Lawrence, has a little sister who has just come of Hunger Game age and a broken mother who has been unreliable since her father’s death. Katniss volunteers after her little sister is picked. There is also an insanely pretty guy she is attracted to who stays home after he is not selected for the games. (Saving him for Movie 2, I bet!)
Katniss is of the earth. She is tough. She is smart. And she is honorable.
That’s one character you know.
Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta, whose name is pronounced “Peter” through most of the movie until Katniss screams it correctly, making her sound like she’s in a community theater production of Fried Green Tomatoes: The Stage Show. He’s a bit of a cypher because we are not supposed to know if he is playing Katniss or digging Katniss.
That’s two characters you almost know.
And that is about all you will ever get. There is a crazy evil blond boy, who gets one line of character dialogue in the third act. And as is needed in any “meaningful” movie with 3 blacks in its entire cast, there is The Magic Negro, in this case embodied by an absolutely beautiful 13-year-old who looks to be about 8 years old. The character is named Rue. She appears from nowhere to innocently help our hero, breath purity into the proceedings and (don’t feel like spoiler warning the obvious). There is one other kid from the same District 11 as Rue… the only other black kid in the games. (Enter extreme segregation eyeroll here.)
What does it tell you when the movie’s website lists FIVE of the kids forced to play in the games listed in its “Full Cast List” section? There’s Katniss, The Boy, The Evil Kid, The Angelic Little Black Girl, and the Crazy Knife-Wielding Brunette Girl *(who is essentially the smart-ass version of the guy with the big knife in Raiders). That’s five of twenty-four, almost all of whom will be murdered by other under-18s. I found 8 more with character names on imdb and another 6 with non-descript character names “District Girl/Boy #.” So I am still missing five murdered characters.
The thing is… if your premise is forcing 24 teens and pre-teens to murder one another in a few days, shouldn’t your movie be emotionally invested in that idea? Isn’t that an idea that not only demands focus, but must be shown respect, lest you turn mass murder into something even less weighty than deaths in a first-person shooter videogame?
Do I think that Hunger Games is going to set some kid or kids off on a rampage or keep them from crying when someone they love dies? No. But will a slaughter in a foreign nation mean anything more to them after seeing this movie? No. Probably less.
Ironically, the Japanese film Battle Royale was all but banned in the United States when it was released a dozen years ago. It never got a theatrical. And it had only cult DVD distribution in this country until this month.
Watching it today, after having seen The Hunger Games and hearing from people who claim the books are not a rip-off of BR, I am not only reminded how much of a clear rip-off this film is (I can’t speak for the future books or movies), but I am saddened by how powerful the emotion – not just the violence – is in BR compared to Hunger Games.
I actually have no problem with a PG-13 version of this material. I get it. Business is business. But BR is almost a textbook of things that could have been done in Hunger Games that would have raised the stakes.
So much of it is nearly identical. There is an evil gamemaster (whose fate in similar in both films… though, of course, unseen in Hunger Games). There is a kitschy cheerleader type laying out the rules. There is a central love story, confused by another relationship. The largest kid is the most skilled, violent, and crazed. Etc.
The numbers in Battle Royale are different… 42 kids, not 24. All the kids are one high school class, not strangers from 12 districts. So it is a bit easier and there are more opportunities to get into ideas connected to specific characters before they die. For instance, there are multiple groups refusing to play the game as it is presented. One pair commits suicide rather than play. Another pair of tries to broker cooperation between all the kids. Another group, all girlfriends, decides to ride it out in a safe space and to try not to kill or be killed… at least until the time is running out. I value all three of these ideas, but I am not saying that Hunger Games had to directly reflect BR. Honorable suicide is cultural touchstone in Japan and not so much here. But these are real ideas… as active in concept as Hunger Games is purely reactive.
Also worth noting, in a film with a running time under 2 hours, BR manages to introduced every single kid and to note their demise at least twice.
As for simple guts, as an action tale, you need look no further than the start of the game. Katniss is warned, “If you jump off the starting pedestal a second early, they’ll blow you to high heaven.” (paraphrased) And then, the film proceeds NOT to have anyone jump early. That’s the kind of movie this is. There is a lot of talk about how deadly everything and everyone is… but they seem intent on keeping a movie about a mass murder event safe for a 12-year-old to see three times. So no one gets “blown to high heaven” for jumping early, thus mitigating the danger from the game itself.
Conversely, before the game even starts in BR, the guy in charge of the game kills a girl with a knife thrown into her forehead for whispering to others after she was told not to and there is a neck-splosion from the control necklaces each kid wears. These kids are terrified and they immediately know that the stakes are death and that death is real.
Another Hunger Games cheat – maybe from the book – is that instead of letting the kids fight a fair fight, the “gamemaster” adds all kinds of weird, badly CGed elements… like flame balls to push characters out of an area or CG monster dogs that are not only badly done, but, as so many things in this film do, distracts from the core idea of the story… kids forced to kill kids.
This is not a Paul Verhoeven movie or something that is aggressively satiric, like Series 7: The Contenders, made for adults, somewhat cartoonish, and poking us in our collective face with our lack of sensitivity. This is a movie made primarily for kids. Between 7 and 12 million kids under 18 will likely see this movie this weekend. What are we telling them when only two or three of the twentysomething kills has any attempt to make an emotional connection?
Is the movie entertaining, aside from my social concerns? Modestly.
The greatest failure within the narrow context of the film itself is the misuse of Woody Harrelson, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci, who gets most of his character work done by slapping in some giant teeth and smiling in a genuinely creepy, funny, and showbiz -familiar way. They hired some of the great scene stealers of the era… and get a couple laughs out of each. it’s almost as though they just didn’t want to go there… even though they trussed up the audience like the crowd that dances The Time Warp in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Second is the failure to force or allow Katniss to ever have to seriously confront her own morality. She doesn’t kill for quite a long time and then, only when reacting to an attack. Our hero, basically, ends up behaving like every action movie sidekick that ends up taking care of business at the last second when the hero gets in trouble and the coward has no choice but to act. Twice.
Third is the abandonment of any strategic thinking that involves more than one step. This movie is checkers, not chess. Act, react, reset for the next scene. Oy.
Fourth is the irritating cutting that has never been seen in a Gary Ross film before. Someone needs some Ritalin. This is cutting that doesn’t push story forward… it’s just style. Bad style.
I’m sure there are more – wasting Donald Sutherland is almost as much of a sin as Wes Bentley’s stupid facial hair – but I don’t feel like picking the movie apart.
My guess is that most people will “be okay” with Hunger Games. I get that. It moves along and Jennifer is lovely to look at and you’ll never actually be surprised or be forced to care very much. Every emotion is simple and obvious. It’s a much better film, technically, than Twilight. But this film makes me appreciate the high camp of that series. It’s about a bunch of kids so horny that they can’t contain their inner animals. I’d love to see Neil Jordan’s version… it might actually be good. But at least it is what it is, not a faded copy as though the printer was just about out of ink.
No horns. No fire-breathing. No deep offense. Just empty calories.