Thursday, March 29, 2012

THE ODDS ARE IN ITS FAVOR: The Hunger Games is a Must See

I am one of a select few of the population who has yet to read Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy (I’m sure the rest of the population that haven’t aren’t old enough to read yet). That being said, It affords me the rare opportunity to review a film without being alternatively aided and handicapped by the source material. As a film, The Hunger Games works.

In a seeming not-too-distant yet dytopic future, the continent of North America (now known as "Panem") is divided into 12 districts. In an ersatz application of the concept of “breads and circuses”, two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are chosen from each district in order to participate in “The Hunger Games”; a televised battle to the death which the populace is required to watch. When her younger sister is chosen by lottery to represent the 12th district, young Katniss Everdeen (a beguiling Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men - First Class) becomes the first volunteer in the games 74 year history. From then on she is given an advisor (an uneven Woody Harrelson, Cheers, The People v. Larry Flint, Zombieland) and handlers (a polished Lenny Kravitz and Elizabeth Banks, outfitted in a wardrobe Batman’s “Harley Quinn” wouldn’t be caught dead in) before she is let loose in a controlled habitat to fight for her survival.

The story is a pastiche of other plots. Death by lottery was a staple of episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and the hunter becoming the hunted is a familiar trope. Yet it is a testament to director Gary Ross (and arguably Suzanne Collins, since it is her story) that they make it seem fresh.  This film balances action and suspense rather well, moving at a brisk pace, despite some uneven dead space as it builds to the main event.

Normally, in a review, I like to break down the elements that work, assess the performances, etc. But this time I am hard pressed to. This is one of those rare films that actually work in a very visceral way. It is, perhaps, one of the most horrifying films this year. “Horrifying” in that the world it depicts, despite its science fiction trappings, is one of the most chilling indictments of our society in quite some time. Our culture’s obsession with reality television,  our collective ability of ignore the ills that plague our society through the distraction of “bread and circuses”.  The quasi-Seussian dress and colors bring out, rather than mute, the stark harshness of this world’s existence. The over-the-top Stanley Tucci, in blue dress, is a maniacal fashion disaster from Whoville who would seem quite at home sitting in Maury Pouvich’s hot seat, stating DNA results no matter what the consequences for those involve all in the name of ratings. In this movie, power resides in the hands of a select few, with the games the only manner in which to keep the masses distracted from their plight. The Tributes (those chosen to become participants in the games) are given the “American Idol” treatment as the audience follow them from selection to indoctrination, from training to game commencement.  It all seems so genteel and magical on screen until they are finally let loose in the game habitat.  The film’s tonality shifts and becomes a modern day “Lord of the Flies”, where the savage survival at all costs instincts come in.

But the true horror comes in the portrayal of the young actors who portray the “Tributes”, as they transform from wholesome youths to, in some cases, bloodthirsty (un)noble savages. Jennifer Lawrence is the glue that holds this film together. Though a great suspension of disbelief would be required to believe that this otherwise healthy looking girl would be starving, the 21 year old Lawrence evinces her character’s despair at the world around her with nary a word. She is frightened, overwhelmed, and, yes, even vulnerable. But she is also strong, resolute and determined. She is a well-rounded heroine with nary a hint of caricature. Without her believability this film would fall apart.  Another standout is Amandala Stenberg as “Rue”, who imbues her character with an almost angelic presence; one that is emblematic of the fact that angels are not meant for this world.

Unfortunately, despite its pacing and coherency of plot, the film does not quite hold together completely, calling attention to the portions of the novel that possibly did not make the transition to the screen. For example, Woody Harrelson’s character undergoes a change of heart in almost inexplicable fashion, with only a hint of a scene as a possible explanation towards its change. Alas, it is insufficient to be satisfying. The same can be said of Peeta’s loyalties (though his name should have been spelled PITA, as in “Pain in the Ass,” for that is how his character comes across).  Directors, take note, the best use of Donald Sutherland is minimalism. The less said, the better.  Same can also be said of the score of James Newton Howard. His orchestrations of late have been serviceable without any real sense of thematic identity. Unfortunately, his score for The Hunger Games continues this trend. It works within the film, but is almost as generic as any of his other actioners.

Of course, there are two other books in the series which, given the profitable opening weekend the film has enjoyed, are surely due for cinematic adaptation. However, I am not left, if you’ll pardon the pun, hungering for more. This is not an indictment. It is, instead, a powerful recommendation.  The film is powerful enough to stand alone, and definitely one of those rare films that deserve multiple viewings. It is that nuanced. It is that meaningful.  It is that good.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.  It is more than sheer entertainment, it is a powerfully allegorical cautionary tale. As our political climate devolves into subsequent petty squabbles, as freedoms seem to become eroded before our very eyes, as celebrities become the focus of national attention in the place of social problems, as the wealth and power of our nation become concentrated into the hands of a powerfully privileged few, this film is a warning, albeit a fantastical one, of the consequences of ignoring what is happening around us. The Hunger Games will not leave you feeling hungry. It will make you angry, it will make you fearful. It will entertain you and, ultimately, fill you with hope.