Film Review: The Hunger Games

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I am a little late to The Hunger Games festivities. I did not see it opening weekend and I did not see it the following weekend. I DID finally see it this week. I started reading the book last summer but then got distracted with other pressing business and never picked it back up. I had every intention to, but in the end, it was probably for the better. I have decided to choose the path of not reading a book before its theatrical incarnation so as to not skew my opinion of what is on screen.

Laziness? Maybe.

Justified laziness? BINGO!

The latest fad in Hollywood is to find a successful YA book series, translate it to the big screen, and hope to high heaven that it turns a high enough profit to justify green-lighting a whole saga. We have seen this done with varying success (Harry Potter and Twilight on the financially successful end, Eragon and Percy Jackson on the other). Enter the new contender The Hunger Games produced by Lionsgate.

The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic narrative of sorts. Following an annihilating war, the world has been partitioned into twelve districts. Each year, a male and female child/teenager pair is selected at random from each district to participate in an event known as The Hunger Games. All 24 kids fight to the death until there is a lone survivor. Upon victory, the Capitol will bring spoils to the victor’s district.

After her younger sister is drafted into the event, Katniss Everdeen of District 12 takes it upon herself to volunteer in her sister’s place and enter into The Hunger Games. A compassionate, motherly figure by nature, Katniss now faces not only a situation of life and death but also how far she is willingly to bend her morals in order to survive.

I don’t normally flesh out a synopsis like that, but I feel it is necessary due to the nature of this narrative. This film is intended to be the first part of a series and it is important for the viewer to determine whether they want to invest in it or not.

The story works for me. Sure, I can be a sucker for dystopian future-based films, but The Hunger Games is obviously based on decent source material which sets it apart from other run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic films. The aspect of children fighting to the death gives it an edgier feeling than some sort of “nuclear-holocaust forming mutants trying to take over the world” would.

Aside from his directing duties, Gary Ross teamed up with the novel’s author Suzanne Collins to write the screenplay of the film. The dialogue within the film is fine. It’s not the greatest screenplay, but it doesn’t have any cheesy lines or awkward conversations. It has a purpose and helps to flesh out the characters.

The pacing of the film, though, is a whole other issue. Being that this is the beginning of a saga, I can forgive the first half of the film going a tad slow. It’s setting up the universe for the audience. This is the case with every new franchise, so I can’t penalize The Hunger Games for this. With that said, I did feel a tad restless about 20 t0 30 minutes in due to my insatiable hunger (pun might not be intended) for the action that the film seemed to promise. Maybe it’s the primal barbarian in me, but the scenes showing the participants training were all a tease. It was a mirage for what seemed to be exciting things to come. I just wanted the film to quickly tie up all of the introductions and get us to games. It eventually gets there, but I felt there was more build-up than was absolutely necessary. It just takes a little too long to get to the main event.

The cast of The Hunger Games is quite impressive.  Gary Ross was not only able to recruit the beautiful and exceptionally talented Jennifer Lawrence for the lead of Katniss, but he was also able to round up the likes of Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, and Woody Harrelson to boot. Tucci and Harrelson do their typical stellar work in supporting roles. Elizabeth Banks continues to impress me with her ability to provide laughs. Donald Sutherland, though at times feeling out of place, can act in his sleep.

I knew that the supporting cast would be up to snuff. My major question was whether Jennifer Lawrence could follow-up her most recent leading role in Winter’s Bone which earned her an Oscar nomination with another strong lead turn. I now know that her nomination was not a fluke and that not only does she have superior beauty, but she can be a leading lady. Sure, this role is not all that dissimilar than the one in Winter’s Bone, but in The Hunger Game she has to add the sub-role of action star. The whole time I watched this film I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise. Though not as dark in tone, Katniss is a reluctant heroine much like Ripley. My anticipation for future chapters in this saga has strong roots in my desire to see Jennifer Lawrence continue with this character (be it for her looks or her abilities).

The cinematography of this film has been a topic of much debate amongst patrons of this film. Gary Ross decided to go with a mostly handheld style that, at times, can get quite frenetic. As I have stated in the past, this style, when done properly, helps to enhance the narrative. If misused, it can dizzy the audience. The first few minutes of The Hunger Games had me wondering if I should have brought along a “barf bag” with me. Fortunately, all fears subsided after the initial introduction and the style began to show that it was used for a purpose.

Sadly, the shaky-cam cinematography was not the greatest distraction on the technical side.

This film is yet another film in a long line of successive action films that uses the overly-cut fighting sequences that confuse the audience as to who is doing what or who has the upper hand. It would be nice if we could properly make out the combatants during hand-to-hand combat scenes, but I suppose this is just a style that I am going to have to accept because it isn’t going away anytime soon it seems.

There is some solid editing in the hallucination scene, though. The scene is THE scene that stands out to me most. It is like watching a film glitch-out but all in a certain rhythm. Is it something that hasn’t been done before? Probably not, but the vibe that the scene sets off gave me “tinglies” down my neck. It just overwhelmed the senses.

Being a big budget film set in the future, there is use of CG. All of it is tastefully done, fortunately. There is an instance late in the film when a breed of mutated animals that look like the monsters from the first Ghostbusters are introduced to the Hunger Games which initially caused some cringing on my part. The scenes that they are used in are under the cover of night. This helps to hide the uncanny valley and in-turn allows the audience to more readily believe their existence.

The film is PG-13 so don’t expect a lot of blood spill. There is brutal violence, though; it’s just all off screen. I understand that some people have the carnal desire to watch a decapitation or a disembowelment, but that is not the soul of this film. The violence we see is enough for this narrative. At no point did I feel cheated by the combat visuals except for the aforementioned close quarter fighting scenes.

The Hunger Games is a valiant effort at starting a franchise. Is it without its flaws? No, but it is a great first chapter in what hopes to be another 2 to 3 films. All involved with this film have crafted a worthwhile experience that far exceeds the bar set by its vampire soap opera contemporary. It has a ways to go before it becomes a classic saga, but I believe there is potential for it be a memorable one.

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