Sunday, 11 March 2012
FILM REVIEW: THE HUNGER GAMES
In 1998, screenwriter, Andrew Nicoll, and director, Peter Weir, gave us The Truman Show; a film about a man who, unbeknownst to himself, had lived out his entire life as the leading man on a television show broadcast live to the world, 24-7.
That remarkable film, one of that year's best, inadvertently gave birth to something altogether remarkable in a different way: reality television. Not too long afterwards, we had Big Brother, where a group of people occupy a house, observed and listened-in on 24-7 by TV cameras, and Survivor, where voluntary castaways on some island paradise compete in immunity-rewarding games, both in the hopes of winning a large financial prize.
If those two programs were amalgamated and taken to the nth degree, then the result may very well be The Hunger Games, an annually televised event which pits 24 teenagers against each other in a battle for survival, or more precisely, to the death. There can only be one winner.
In the not-too-distant future following a civil war of sorts, the United States has been divided into 12 districts, each falling under the control of the Capitol, a fascist regime not unlike the kind that would result from a Sarah Palin presidency.
In honour of the new regime, and penance (re: punishment) for the peoples' revolt, the Hunger Games are held, selecting one male and one female (known as Tributes) from each district to compete for the honour of victory. That's how, in its 74th year, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself competing for her life.
Actually, she volunteers in place of her younger sister who is chosen, and along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is taken to the Capitol for grooming, in the art of hand-to-hand combat as well as quite literally. For reality TV, as we know, is all about personality.
Katniss and Peeta have Hamitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games winner from District 12, chaperone Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) in their corner, to instruct them in the art of winning, not just the Games but hearts and minds; sponsorship from wealthy Capitol viewers could be the key to a Tribute's survival.
Peeta knows how to play that game but Katniss, more comfortable hunting game than collecting friends, is a little slow to adjust. But once the Games proper begin (a fair way into this 142 minute film), the girl from District 12 with the bow and arrow comes into her own.
And so does the film. Director Gary Ross (2003's Seabiscuit), adapting the first in Suzanne Collins' trilogy of young adult books, takes his sweet time establishing the world of the Hunger Games without really informing his audience all that much. Presumably he's working under the impression that the majority of those flocking to see The Hunger Games have read the source material.
That would explain why little time is spent explaining how this new America came about, or why the people of the Capitol seem to have been styled by Lady Gaga while those in the Districts dress like Depression-era breadliners.
It would also explain why actors such as Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland (breaking a long-running streak of dieing in the first act) are relegated to colourful though unfulfilling cameos.
Still, when the Games begin, the film jolts to life. The sequence which sees the 24 competitors released into the wild, is as savage and unnerving as anything you'll see on screen this year. While some competitors, like Katniss and Peeta, head straight for the woods, others attempt to arm themselves with the weapons left for them. And bloodshed ensues, with half of the Tributes dead in the opening minutes of the Games.
Even Tom Stern's shaky-cam cinematography, which blurs these brutal acts (and secures a more friendly rating for the film in the process), can't blunt the actual horror of the film's very premise: kids killing kids in the name of entertainment.
The remainder of The Hunger Games is, for the most part, a highly tense affair as Katniss hides out in the woods, making short-lived alliances and alluding almost certain death. To say any more would be too spoiler-ish but given that there are two more books -- and if this first entry is a success (and all signs suggest it will be), two more films -- the Games are set to continue.
Hopefully that will mean a little more fleshing out of the history of this world created by Collins, and the characters who populate it (Aussie Liam Hemsworth is another saddled with a thankless role as Katniss's best friend, Gale Hawthorne).
Lawrence, on the other hand, brings the same sort of grit and determination she did to her Oscar nominated role in Winter's Bone (2010), although with decidedly more glam. Indeed the similarities between the two characters -- their home lives, inner strength -- are quite striking.
Not that I'm suggesting Lawrence will again be a nominee this year, not for The Hunger Games at least; it's not that type (or quality) of film (seriously, let's not lose our heads, people).
But to its credit, The Hunger Games is big budget Hollywood entertainment which caters (panders?) to its target audience whilst also managing to have more on its mind than explosions or cheap thrills. It's also that rarest of creatures: a Hollywood blockbuster centred around a strong female lead.
With Survivor still going strong on US television, and Big Brother making a return to Australian screens later this year, the appeal of reality TV would seem to still be strong, providing the perfect environment for the release of The Hunger Games. That, and the already strongly established readership for Suzanne Collins' universe, would seem to suggest that the odds of box office success are certainly in the film's favour.