Thursday, March 29, 2012
The Hunger Games: a promising piece of entertainment undone by bad directorial decisions
There are quite a few things about "The Hunger Games" that's done just right. The casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence was a smart one as she has not disappointed in a single performance that I have seen her in. She's wonderful here as Katniss Everdeen, a strong teenage girl who volunteers for the hunger games to prevent her little sister from being in it. In fact, there are a number of other great performances in this film including from Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and even Lenny Kravitz.
The film also does a great job of keeping the main focus on Katniss as she is a very easy character to like and you can easily empathize with her. It's hard not to care about a girl so well-defined in her actions. Gary Ross does of a great job in the first act with the handheld camerawork as it captures the immediacy and de-romanticizes the district that Katniss comes from.
That is District 12. As the story goes, the nation of Panem devised The Hunger Games to remind the twelve districts that they have control over them. This was done after citizens of District 13 rebelled and the district was destroyed. For the 12 districts, they must randomly select one boy and one girl from the ages 12-18 to participate in this game of survival where only one child shall remain alive when it is all said and done. For District 12, Katniss volunteers in place of her sister and her male counterpart is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
Once they are selected they are brought into the Capitol where they meet a former hunger game winner from District 12, Haymitch (played by Woody Harrelson), who's been brought along to help guide them through the process. The film is effective in how it shows us the way people in the Capitol live with ridiculous outfits and lavish lifestyles which is in stark contrast of the area that Katniss and Peeta were brought up in. The Hunger Games is televised for all the districts to see and Haymitch reminds the two of them that the more likable they are, the more likely they are to survive thanks to government sponsors. Peeta seems to understand this better than Katniss, as he reveals on TV that he has a crush on Katniss.
The game starts and later, after members of District 11 witness the death of one of their own children, Rue, and see how nicely Katniss handles it, riots begin to erupt. Those behind the Hunger Games ultimately decide to change the rules so that two children are allowed to survive at the end, as long as they belong in the same district. They did this to try to instill some hope with the angry mob that is District 11, hoping the romance between Katniss and Peeta will give them someone to root for.
We never really get to fully understand just why Katniss's actions would elicit such an emotional response from District 11 because the movie never goes into it. It would've been more interesting to get more of a sense of the viewing audience for these games. But since we never get to see the other districts and their reactions (save for the moment I just mentioned), we become the tv audience. And that would be cool if that was the intention, but given that there are so many unnecessary control room shots, I don't think it was.
The choice to continue using the herky-jerky camera work in the third act is ultimately, a bad one. Shying away from showing the violence in order to get a PG-13 rating greatly damaged the impact of the action that takes place during the actual hunger games. What should be emotionally-jarring just winds up looking trivial and inconsequential. Furthermore, we don't really get to know much about the other members of the games, except for Rue, who is adorable. It would have been nice to get a little more of a sense of the other characters instead of just making them all one-note enemies for Katniss.
The film tries to work as basic entertainment, but the nature of the plot raises political issues that the filmmakers never really get into . Given that, The Hunger Games is a movie with very little layers. When every little plot development is told to the audience before the developments happen, it does not leave for much suspense or thrills. Because of this, The Hunger Games just feels flat, and for me, it isn't able to fully succeed as basic entertainment largely due to these flaws.
I'm sure the movie plays out just fine with those who have read the book, including people I know personally, who I'm sure will hate me a little bit after reading this review. But a movie should work as a movie alone, first and foremost, and The Hunger Games comes up short. The only reason why the film is continually watchable is because Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss is such a well-written and interesting character.
But the biggest reason why the movie cannot work as just entertainment is because, let's face it, "the entertainment" and the action involves children killing other children. A movie centered around killing children better have a filmmaker who knows how to handle the material. The fact that, once again, all the suspense and the thrills are taken away from us thanks to countless shots of the control room showing us what is about to be done before the action happens... it just makes it worse. It's clear to me that the book probably goes way deeper into the political subtext than the movie does, that does not excuse the movie for not exploring more of its political themes. As it is, The Hunger Games movie doesn't raise questions, it doesn't make you think, its scope is surprisingly very narrow. This is a movie that's supposed to be sold as entertainment and it fails on so many levels.