Socorro movie review: The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games
Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci
Showing nightly at the Loma
I'm going to split this review into two parts: the first looking at how this film stands on its own merits, and the second discussing the uncanny (and to me irritating) similarities with the Japanese film and novel Battle Royale. I enjoyed Battle Royale much more then The Hunger Games, and the themes the two share in common detracted from the Hunger Games for me (as Battle Royale predates The Hunger Games by 9 years). In general, the first part will assume Battle Royale never existed.
Part 1: The Hunger Games on its own merit
As director Gary Ross' third motion picture, he's been given a huge responsibility, turning Suzanne Collins' New York Times Best Seller book, of the same name, into a big budget blockbuster. How did he do? In a word, commendable. Make no mistake, though this was released on March 23rd, it is from beginning to end summer blockbuster material. The action is intense, and the special effects are expensive. But where this movie shines for me is the characters, the setting, and the aesthetic of a dystopian future.
The story revolves around teenager Katniss Everdeen (played very well by Jennifer Lawrence) as she offers herself up (replacing her younger sister) in a federally sanctioned fight to the death among children which is presented as a reality television show occurring annually. The overbearing central government in the megalopolis called The Capitol requires that each state (called Districts) turn over 2 children to represent the respective Districts in the competition. The contest is in place to remind the Districts of the mistake they made by starting a popular revolt against The Capitol years before.
The most important aspect of making a movie like this work is to have the chemistry between the characters click. The cast quality is a bit uneven, but works where it needs to. I felt Lawrence's part as the lead, Katniss, was very strong, and adequate to carry the movie to a higher level. Unfortunately the same can't be said about Hutcherson's turn as Peeta, who comes from the same district as Katniss. I feel Hutcherson is entirely too stoic for the part he had to play. And by that I mean there is no emotion in his eyes. With that said, the dynamic and ambiguous nature of their relationship was very intriguing to me, adding a richness to the story rarely seen in summer blockbusters. The supporting cast to me was nothing short of amazing. Woody Harrelson's turn as the initially indifferent pickled mentor, whose only claim to fame is surviving a past Hunger Games, is superb. I was very surprised at how well Lenny Kravitz did as the image developer for Katniss and Peeta. Elizabeth Banks as the prim and proper Effie, acting as chaperone for the two teens, adds an artificial sheen to the movie that plays into the aesthetic of glossy utopian society of the future. But, for me the standout was Stanley Tucci, who plays the host of the Hunger Games. And he plays it well. His character is so manipulative, and to me so fake, it was just what the movie needed. This supporting cast provides an excellent background to Katniss' experience in the Hunger Games.
The setting adds a lot of character to the movie. Both the fashion and culture of the future feel like a neon carnival that would have existed in the late 19th/early 20th century. There is a strong steampunk feel, and the low tech weaponry (limited in the game to blades and bows and arrows) play in to the fascinating low tech future. The seething anger towards The Capitol lurking below the surface of the Districts sets the stage for the next two films very well. What I found a bit weak was how quickly the rules of the Hunger Games changed. It does fall in line with modern day reality television, but it made for some convenient and contrived plot twists that left a bad taste in my mouth. I should also mention that the violence in this film broaches the touchy subject of violence between children. This is typically forbidden territory in most media. There is quite a bid of blood, but the gore is largely implied, and done very effectively, not graphically. Knowing his audience, Ross kept it true to its PG-13 rating.
Taken as whole film, The Hunger Games is greater then the sum of its parts, and can stand its own ground. The date potential is high for this movie, assuming both are ok with the violence. There is enough meat and bones here to have a lot to talk about afterwards.
Part 2: The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale
Koushun Takami's novel Battle Royale was published in April, 1999, over nine years earlier then Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Both stories take place in a dystopian future, where strong centralized governments subjugate the general population through the brutal bloodsport of pitting children against each other in a fight to the death. Both novels are meant to illustrate how humans are reduced to almost animalistic instinct when survival is at stake, and how oppressed populations will inevitability rise against the oppressor. In Battle Royale, the children selected for the contest all come from the same middle school class, which makes for an interesting back story, since for the most part these children have grown up together. In The Hunger Games, since the districts offer up children in pairs, it makes focusing on the backstory of only two children at a time very convenient, and since they are boy/girl pairs, ripe for romantic development. With Battle Royale's rules static, tension is built up very methodically, which for me is preferable to the twists and turns of The Hunger Game's on-the-fly rules. The far more graphic violence of Battle Royale gives it a grittier edge to the more sterile implied violence of The Hunger Games. In so many ways The Hunger Games is merely a westernized Battle Royale, focusing on the individual strengths of the players, and our flair for glitz and glamor. There is a cadre of adults which make The Hunger Games happen, while Battle Royale's central adult figure is the teacher who acts as maestro and ringmaster for the game. Unfortunately, for me the similarities truly detract from The Hunger Games, as it really makes the story not nearly as interesting, or edgy.