Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

I specifically avoided viewing the 2000 Japanese film 'Battle Royale' before seeing The Hunger Games since Suzanne Collins, who wrote the books, has said that she hadn't seen 'Battle Royale' before penning the book, and I believe her.

What I'm sure Ms Collins has been influenced by are a lot of other great stories. The Hunger Games is a little bit Gladiator, it's a little bit The Lord of the Flies, it's a little bit Logan's Run, it's a little bit The Truman show, it's a little bit 1984, but in no way is it a 'rip-off' of any of these inspirations. The Hunger Games takes from these and other tales and builds a gripping piece of cinema that at two hours and forty minutes in length, still manages to make the time fly like an arrow.

The issues brought up are brilliant, and as a piece of social commentary, The Hunger Games reaches high and (for me) gets there. We see a society where fear of terrorists or some other dark looming enemy, and the morbid fascination people have with Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore and Toddlers in Tiara's together is exploited by a tyrannical government. We see this through one abstraction from reality and it works exquisitely. There's a string left loose, where, after one character ponders 'if we just don't watch, they wont have a game,' the idea of switching off the television as an act of rebellion isn't explored any further. I suppose it's important to remember that this will be one of three films (I think three) and this will be explored in the coming two. Being part of a trilogy is another reason I can forgive it for denying us the right ending, although I can't expound upon that without spoiling it.

May the odds of eating cake be ever in your favour.
Beyond that there's a socio-economic commentary which I think may be easy to miss, but is very clever and very innovative. An 'Oceana' like pan-North-American country is divided into 12 'districts'. One district has a clear advantage over the others; that some of the children born there are trained from as young as practical to compete, and then volunteer for what is otherwise a contest of children chosen at random to fight each other to the death. It's making a statement about the lack of opportunity in lower class America, which is a problem dismissed by one side of US politics by ignoring the disparity of opportunity. This ignores the very practical barriers to college, careers, and a better life faced by poor Americans by imagining that, if a poor person can work, they can afford college, and ignoring the exorbitant tuition rates, medical insurance, rent, and other such practical barriers. It's these practical barriers which make it the trust fund kids disproportionately represented on US college campuses (campi?), and the Section 1 kids disproportionately victorious in past hunger games. The dismissive nature of this side of US politics is summed up beautifully in a line from Elizabeth Banks' character Effie Trinket: "The tributes from district 1 have no unfair advantage over anyone else, they don't even get extra dessert"*. Oh, and it's a little bit Marie Antoinette.

Unfortunately the cinematography indulges in the trite fashion of the 'shaky hand-held camera' gimmick a little too much for its own good. There's an early scene in which we see an exterior establishment shot, shaky camera, followed by an interior establishment shot, camera steady. It makes no sense, it's distracting and I found it a let down. Stay through the credits and there are at least 20 credits for DoPs, Directors and auxiliary unit directors, and none of them picked up on this or at any point thought the shaky camera was overdone. Very unfortunate.

Lastly I'll mention the performances, and two that stood out. The first is Jennifer Lawrence in the lead. Her romance scenes and her fighting scenes are both fine, but she also gives us terror, true terror in several scenes which is really overwhelming, and makes you feel terrified for her. For this reason I was really disappointed when the CGI monsters showed up, because up to that point, it had been a film where the real monsters were inside human beings. When done right, as The Hunger Games mostly does, the darkness within man is the most terrifying beast on the big screen of all. The second is Stanley Tucci's portrayal as the host of violent, morbid and exploitative game show. Tucci hit all the right buttons, and I wanted to see more of it, I know that there is more he can give us, and I have a hunch we might get that in the sequels to come.

The Hunger Games is clever, gripping, innovative and well put together. It's no exaggeration that after almost three hours when it finished and the credits started rolling, I felt like I had only been in the cinema for 90 minutes, and this can only be true of a film which sucks you in and keeps you engaged. I feel it may become an important staple of the culture of this generation. While in the cinema I was planning on a three or three-and-a-half stars, but referring back to my own criteria for awarding stars to films, it genuinely satisfies the requirements for four or four-and-a-half. I'm restraining the extra half for the camera work, and leaving it with four stars, and it earned all four of them.

*I'm guessing at this quote; despite the fact that I found it to be one of the three or four most important lines in the film, it's not in the IMDb list of quotes for this film. Inconceivable!

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