Friday, March 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

I start this blog with some reticence, I never read the books, which are appareantly a world-wide phenomenon, but still agreed to go to the midnight release when one of my friends asked me to.  In hindsight, I think I am glad I didn’t read the books, even though I was wishing I had as I watched the movie.  If you’re like me and you’ve never read the books, then the following may contain SPOILERS for the movie.  But if you’ve read the book, then this should all make sense.

The movie is set in a not too distant future, but you wouldn’t know that at first.  The first few scenes capture a town that is like that of a third world country.  The movie is set in North America, but the location is unknown, though the main occupation is mining of various sorts.  The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen, a young girl who lost her father some years ago and takes care of her mother and sister.  The tradition in this new world requires that each district (somewhat like a state or province), is required to sacrifice one boy and one girl to the event call the Hunger Games.  These games are set up to punish those that took part in a rebellion that cost countless lives.  All the provinces are required to submit children, between the ages of twelve and seventeen, but some provinces are better off than others, giving those children an advantage over others.

As the selection process begins, Katniss’ younger sister is being entered for the first time and is terrified.  When her name is selected, Katniss only has one option, but to volunteer in her sister’s place.  A boy, Peeta, is selected as well and the two are ushered off to be taken to the capital, where the game will be conducted.  In many ways, the game is basically a Battle Dome.  All the kids are put in one place; none can leave until all the others are dead.  The event is broadcast live on television for all to watch.  The scenes from the previous event are brutal and bloody.

Katniss and Peeta are joined by a pair of people, one a mentor, the other a publicist.  The two are supposed to help the children deal with their new situation, and ultimately their imminent deaths.  Once they arrive in the Capital, the squalor that was seen earlier is gone, and the city is teeming with affluence.  The kids are put into a posh apartment and begin a two-week training session and audition for sponsors.  The kids are also joined by Cinna, who is basically a costume designer, but also provides much needed support to Katniss. 

As the games draw near, the tension and apprehension are felt palpably by all the kids entered.  The sheer panic that each child exudes knowing he or she may die any moment had most of the theatre in tears.  Once the event begins, half of the field is eliminated by the kids from the most affluent districts.  The rest of the Hunger Games are much more strategic and require some kids to team up with others, much like the TV show Survivor.  Initially, Peeta teams up with the other kids once he realises that Katniss has a much larger likelihood of winning based on the odds.  As each child dies, a cannon goes off and a display is produced that indicates who has been lost.  The tension grows as Katniss is cornered by five kids, including Peeta.  She gets help from an unlikely source, Rue, who advises her to drop a hornet’s nest on the kids to get away.  This tactic works, but Katniss is also stung and feels the effects of the hornets.  Rue helps Katniss recover and the two work together to try to take an advantage over the kids who have banded together.  They find a way to destroy their things, but in the process, Rue gets caught and killed.

As the game progresses, Katniss manages to find Peeta, injured and trying to hide.  She is forced to fall into a clear trap to get medicine for both to get better.  Though she is attacked, the boy from Rue’s district kills the girl who has her cornered and she is able to help Peeta.  The two manage to survive long enough to be one of the last three alive.  During the competition, the hosts are able to initiate any number of elements into the area to change the game.  At one point they use a fire to move Katniss closer to the rest of the team.  At the end of the game, they introduce what look like jungle cats to hunt the last kids down.  With this added danger, Katniss and Peeta race to the place where the competition started and hide on the large structure that is too high for the animals to reach. Once they get there, the find the other last kid and he tries to kill Peeta, but Katniss saves him and he falls to his death.

The rules that had been amended earlier to allow two winners is stopped, but Katniss decides they should both die so that the game is ruined and there is no one winner.  They fall for her bluff (unless it wasn’t a bluff) and both are spared.  After winning the contest, the last few scenes show Katniss and Peeta going back to district twelve, leaving the ending somewhat unfinished but open for a sequel.

Overall, I have to admit it was better than I expected it to be.  I didn’t know much about the books at all, so was expecting an Eragon-like movie.  The hype seemed similar to me, but I was wrong about both the story and the actors.  While I didn’t realise that Jennifer Lawrence had been nominated for an Academy Award in 2010, I was surprised how her performance grew on me as the movie progressed.  She captured the fear and anxiety I would imagine Katniss would feel knowing she was basically going to her death.  I still felt like she had very wooden moments.  The supporting cast was quite good as well, though I felt some of the characterisations were caricatures of something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Woody Harrleson was believable, but also somewhat unconvincing.  I wasn’t overly impressed with him.  On the flip side of that, Lenny Kravitz was actually really amazing.  I didn’t think he had a gift to act, but he portrayed a lot in the few scenes he had, outshining Jennifer Lawrence.  I felt like much of her performance was elevated by her supporting cast.

The story made sense, but I still had a lot of questions.  I assume these are answered in the book and couldn’t be fit into a two-and-a-half hour movie, but I didn’t understand what the expectation would be once they won, or what caused the rebellion and the Hunger Games to be chosen as the only resort for punishment.  I also felt like the back story for all of the characters was striped down, which is often the case in movies based on books, but I’ve seen it done better.

Overall, the story doesn’t hit me as a Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter calibre story, but it has merit and may win me over in a sequel.  The real conundrum comes now as to whether I should go all in and read the books now or wait it out.  I went in with low expectations and was happily surprised.  Though, a midnight movie may be costly as the day goes on, as I didn’t take today off, and it is still very early.  

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