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Overall Rating

Awesome: 16.67%
Worth A Look41.67%
Average: 6.67%
Pretty Bad: 25%
Total Crap: 10%

5 reviews, 30 user ratings

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Hunger Games, The
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by Brett Gallman

"A Dead Teenager Movie with brains."
4 stars

At its basic level, “The Hunger Games” represents something we could use more of from blockbuster filmmaking. Even though it’s based on a young adult novel--stuff that can sometimes be easily dismissed as light fluff--it’s swarming with resonant and relevant ideas, and it’s mostly delivered in a steady, professional, and even restrained manner. The only problem is that it’s perhaps a bit too restrained and sometimes borders on being a sharp but merely dutiful entry point into a universe that will eventually sprawl out into further films.

As an introduction, it sometimes feels like you’ve been invited to a party where you shake a lot of hands and only get about three-fourths of the experience. Since I haven’t read Suzanne Collins’s original novel, I can’t be sure if some material has been lost in translation, but this screenplay (which she also co-wrote) does efficiently capture her vision of Panem, a dystopian nation that once suppressed the rebellion started by one of its 13 districts. To reestablish their authority in the wake of this, the Capitol holds the annual Hunger Games that see each of the remaining 12 districts offer up a male and a female between the ages of 12 and 18 as “tributes” to compete in a nationally televised battle to the death.

All of this is relayed rather skillfully, albeit not without some hiccups--we’re dropped right in with only some opening text briefly explaining the concept, when the film itself offers a much better introduction later on in the form of a propaganda video given by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to the potential tributes. Given that the film often blurs the lines between its own cinematic lens and the in-movie media presentation of The Hunger Games, this seems like a more logical opening volley.

The other half of the equation during this prelude is the introduction of our hero, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), whose plight is conveyed in a similarly clinical manner: she hails from a destitute mining district, and her father recently died in an accident, leaving her to raise her younger sister alongside her shaken, vacant-eyed mother. She’s practically introduced as a warrior--when we first see her, she’s stalking prey in a forest, bow and arrow in tow. That visual is striking enough, but Lawrence immediately brings a tough presence that only wavers when the actress knows she needs to; she is both a woman and a girl, and her movement through what it means to be both of these is fully realized in Lawrence’s performance.

She does this almost in spite of the undercooked front end of “The Hunger Games.” Though some of the blanks are lightly filled in through some flashbacks throughout the film, the emotional underpinning of Katniss voluntarily entering the games in place of her younger sister might have been more effective had the stakes been driven a little bit more deeply. Instead, we only get those basics (we also learn that Katniss is chummy with a boy, portrayed by Liam Hemsworth) before quickly being shuttled off to the games along with Katniss an her District 13 male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

It’s here that “The Hunger Games” really finds its footing, as the semantics of the games are deftly relayed through both characters and Stanley Tucci’s ridiculous (but spot-on) game show host. Among the characters are Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former winner who’s supposed to be like Ben Kenobi to Katniss, but he’s more like Han Solo, albeit more inebriated. Lenny Kravitz briefly appears as Cinna, another mentor figure who doubles as Katniss’s stylist, and these supporting roles are so well-inhabited that the performances bring weight to otherwise weightless relationships; by the time Katniss sets off to finally enter the game, both Haymitch and Cinna feel like proud father figures even though you can sense that a lot of the on screen development may have ended up on the cutting-room floor.

That somewhat undercooked nature extends itself to the actual arena, where the film sometimes stumbles; it’s arguable that “The Hunger Games” should be at its strongest here, but it’s not particularly well-rounded. I can overlook the overly shaky action scenes because the chops are still visceral, and the film is as unflinching as it can be with a PG-13 rating (though you can argue that such a restriction keeps the film from being fully horrifying on that visceral level); however, so much of it feels a little empty because we never meet most of the combatants besides Katniss and Peeta. There’s a lack of a real antagonist here, though Alexander Ludwig’s Cato emerges as the de-facto Alpha Male, and there are some typically disturbing beats that see some of the kids form factions to hunt down Katniss. There are other brief interludes, such as Katniss’s bond with a young, pre-teen competitor, that give the arena battle some semblance of form.

But a lot of it is rather poorly relayed, right down to the level of basic information, whether it be the passage of time or the number of remaining combatants, which is especially strange given that it’s framed within the game show. As a result, there’s a sense of anticlimax simply because you’re not quite geared up for it, as you’re never quite sure what the film is building towards, and this perhaps only hurts its propulsion and shape if you’re expecting it to degenerate into a simple battle for survival.

That’s not what “The Hunger Games” is, though, as it opts for something a little bit more cerebral and funnels it through Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. It's a tricky proposition--on the one hand, treating Katniss's adversaries as mere targets rather than rounded, human characters dilutes the portent of seeing her resort to savagery; on the other hand, it allows us to see the games as the film's spectators do: as a thrilling display of brutality. I think Ross manages to just balance the moralistic obligations with that self-aware immersion.

Because of this, a lot of these criticisms mostly amount to big nitpicks because you can see the ambition here to go beyond a pulpy concept. As allegory, “The Hunger Games” merely arranges a lot of these characters as window dressing because it does have a razor sharp focus on both its protagonist and its ideas. Much has been made of what “The Hunger Games” cribs from, be it “Battle Royale,” “Death Race 2000,” “The Most Dangerous Game," and even Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." That it does so is both indisputable and irrelevant as a point of negativity because it takes the concepts it shares with those works and contextualizes them in the shadow of both the Occupy movement and reality television. Though Collins couldn’t have conceived this as an Occupy parable when she wrote the novel over 4 years ago, it’s difficult to ignore how the entirety of “The Hunger Games” is buttressed by the gaping inequality between the aristocratic Capitol dwellers and the district proletariat.

The astonishing way in which Ross and company realize this is the film’s other masterstroke, as the inequality is visually evident in both the costume and production design. District 12 is an earthy, dusty throwback to the early 20th century, while the capital teems with flamboyant pastels and ghastly looking citizens. The opening ceremonies themselves feel like the Olympics if they were crashed by the world’s biggest debutante ball, and there’s an obvious and perverse depravity to the entire spectacle. It’s not just enough that the rich prey upon the poor by tossing them into this barbaric game--they also have to make a spectacle of them by parading them about, all the while giving them a taste of the glamorous life that’s otherwise out of reach. Perhaps even worse, the tributes have to make themselves presentable and likable to curry the favor of sponsors; there’s a scene where Katniss has to display her archery skills to a bunch of men, an it borders on being a disturbing allegory for prostitution.

And the best part is that all of this comes without any big, broad, sentimental speeches; it’s all either unspoken or delivered through succinct conversations or through powerful visual moments. I wasn’t quite sure just how invested I was in “The Hunger Games” until one of those moments struck; it comes about halfway through, when a tragic event in the games causes a riot at one of the districts, and the image of white stormtroopers forcefully beating back citizens is as disturbing as any similar moment ripped out of any number of post-apocalyptic films. This sequence is wonderfully scored and the rawness of the visuals capture that simmering, largely unspoken outrage that’s boiling around the edges of this film. You can almost sense that “The Hunger Games” represents the turning of a tide, and that it finds a match in our own headlines only makes it all the more affecting.

This is why the film can sort of get away with some of its flaws, particularly the underdevelopment of Katniss’s adversaries in the arena. Obviously, they aren’t the true enemies here--instead, it’s Snow, his right-hand man who doubles as the Games’ show-runnner (Wes Bentley), and the decadent society that’s allowed the games to persist. We’re privy to it ourselves whenever the film presents the media coverage of the games, as we’re swept up along with the characters in their sensationalism. Even Katniss herself can’t quite help herself when she’s given the highest pre-Games grade among her competitors, an honor that instills a sense of pride and triumph that’s all manufactured coercion. We’re constantly manipulated by the ever-changing rules of the game, and, when they’re changed in favor of our lead, we’re instilled with a sense of hope--which is exactly what The Hunger Games are designed to dangle in front of its disenfranchised masses who have been cowed into cheering their own destruction.

That Ross nails this heady stuff isn’t all that surprising since it’s a natural progression from the likes of “Pleasantville," which was about artificiality, media, and classism. “The Hunger Games” similarly holds up a mirror and reveals some ugly, glaring truths about our manufactured thrills. Our reality television doesn’t see people killing each other for sport (yet), but we have engendered a culture that’s crystallized its divides on the airwaves, and we’ve spent so much time watching awful people doing awful things that we don’t see the true predators lurking out there in the forest, hiding behind the trees that hold our attention.

“The Hunger Games” sometimes does seem like it’s had large chunks of its pages discarded for this adaptation, but it elegantly presents a biting allegory and a mesmerizing, screen-holding performance from Lawrence that pulls it through. Its underdeveloped elements keep a very good film from being transcendently great, but it says a lot that I only want to see more of this world, particularly Katniss, who suddenly finds herself a revolutionary figure who's actually playing multiple games. There's the obvious, physical one within the arena, but the one beyond that--the PR game that's much more dangerous--is the one that wreaks havoc on her identity.

If the sequels can build upon and polish this solid foundation, “The Hunger Games” could become a landmark sci-fi saga with an iconic female hero who is wonderfully compelling without being a cartoonish fantasy sketched out by the male gaze. That's something we could use more of, too.

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originally posted: 03/24/12 16:26:07
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User Comments

10/30/16 morris campbell dull boring overrated IMHO 1 stars
5/08/16 Andra Birzu Sill the best part of all, in my opinion 4 stars
11/24/15 Charles Tatum Not compelling enough to need to sit through the sequels. 3 stars
11/09/14 dr.lao Beats out Logan's Run for the all time silliest dystopian vision ever 1 stars
11/23/13 Lord Stupid childish cheesy shit 1 stars
8/29/13 Tammy Woodall This movie was excellent and stayed true to the book. 5 stars
7/17/13 Janine M Movie gets 5 stars, Rollie's review gets 1/2 a star. Try paying attention next time. 5 stars
1/27/13 the truth if you want logical characters, good acting, believable scenarios, and originality, LEAVE. 1 stars
1/21/13 dmasz91 excellent movie!!! we must see a sequel. the beginning was a little drawn out though. 4 stars
9/14/12 Dina Good movie, great visuals, great performances by Jennifer Lawrence & Woody Harrelson 4 stars
9/11/12 marta gilson loved it 5 stars
8/29/12 Pedro Rafael Cruz Awesome Sauce all over Katniss!!! Loved it! 5 stars
8/24/12 The Taitor Too much set up, a # of questions, and not enough action/typical pg-13 rating=Rental 3 stars
8/22/12 Martha Rios Good book to movie standard. 4 stars
8/20/12 Croweater888 Requires about 40 minutes of tight editing as it is slow and dull. 2 stars
8/19/12 John Smith The book was written for young teen girls to give them a role model.The movie reflects this 5 stars
8/19/12 lee this movie dumbed down the book and the book wasd already dumb. but the costumes are great. 1 stars
7/30/12 bob far more standard than it seems to think it is 2 stars
6/21/12 Monday Morning I'm a bitter old cynic, but I still thought this was a great, uplifting story well told. 5 stars
5/24/12 Diana Great story great film 5 stars
5/17/12 Geraldine Very decent adaptation. I look forward to the sequel. 5 stars
5/09/12 Jimmy Web feminist garbage 1 stars
5/05/12 Philip I find the complaints tiresome and pointless. It was a wonderful adaptation of a book. 5 stars
5/01/12 jordynn I loved this book so much and i cant wait to see the movie! 5 stars
3/31/12 Toni Much better than I expected, fairly true to the book 4 stars
3/27/12 KingNeutron Stanley Tucci just about stole the show, but that hair--!! 3 stars
3/26/12 Koitus Not as good as "Battle Royale." Not enough development of other combatants. 3 stars
3/25/12 M Hungry for more 4 stars
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  23-Mar-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-Aug-2012


  DVD: 18-Aug-2012

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