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Film Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012; Directed by Gary Ross)

An earnest, respectable, and entirely unsubtle dystopian pastiche with a few peaks and a few valleys, the film version of Suzanne Collins’ mega-selling young adult trilogy-starter The Hunger Games collected piles of box office swag and even a favourable critical notice or two. Often compared to previous youth-centric pop culture phenomena like Harry Potter and Twilight, Collins’ creation contends with the former for sociopolitical implications and the latter for pulpy love-triangle intrigue while surpassing both in its penchant for pitiless barebones brutality (although, to be fair, it is critiquing our own society’s tolerance for violence in our cultural products in its application of this last element).

The Hunger Games

If you don’t know what The Hunger Games is about (and surely, inevitably, you must), the film is set in an alternately grim and superficial quasi-American future of centralized, propaganda-fuelled totalitarianism and extreme economic disparity and social division (or, as we may call it after this November, the Romney-Ryan Administration). Following a failed rebellion by the previous order’s outlying have-nots against its power-wielding elite of haves, a strictly-enforced system of control has been implemented with a massively popular televised competition at its centre. This is the titular Hunger Games, in which two teenaged “Tributes” from each of the twelve Districts surrounding the lustrous neo-Art Deco Capitol are chosen by lottery to strive against other such representatives in a huge fabricated arena, battling to the death until only a single winner remains.

This premise should sound familiar, being a collage of influences ranging from Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” to reality television to films like the classic noir The Most Dangerous Game, Japanese cult flick Battle Royale, and Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man to prophetic-warning sci-fi from the likes of Orwell, Huxley, and H.G. Wells to classical myth and Roman gladiatorial displays. The new-ish twist on this compound formula offered by Collins (who co-wrote the screenplay) is to make her hero(ine) in the competition a tough-as-nails, bow-slinging young woman whose ingenuity and terse survival instincts lead her towards a sort of inadvertent resistance against the manipulations of the central source of power.

This backwoods Artemis is Katniss Everdeen, given a compelling combination of suppleness and uncompromising steel by the exciting and striking young actress Jennifer Lawrence. She volunteers to be a Tribute to save her helpless younger sister (Willow Shields) from certain doom in the arena, and is whisked off to the Capitol alongside local baker’s boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), much to be consternation of her apparently platonic male friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Herein lies the kernel of a love triangle that does not really go anywhere in this movie at least, mainly due to the handsome but blank Hemsworth’s fairly minimal screen time. The polished realm of demonstrative wealth that she finds in that Capitol is certainly a long way from District 12, her rustic homeland of agrarian deprivation (filmed in North Carolina’s Appalachian region, the early scenes strongly suggest the Ozarks setting of Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone).

But what I don’t get, guys, is how the Professor gets the radio INSIDE the coconut. I mean, WTF, amirite?

Although she finds sympathetic figures there, particularly her image consultant Cinna (a highly casual Lenny Kravitz) and eventually her former-Games-winning mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, who puts major strain into damping down his casualness as the film goes on), the city is mostly portrayed as a ludicrous, decadent civilization of glittering outfits, unpredictable hairdos, and unchecked conspicuous consumption, all (by implication) paid for with the toil of the trodden-upon denizens of the outer Districts like her own. It’s an exaggerated depiction of the split between the progressive urban elite and the traditionalist rural poor that fires the fantasies of many a movement conservative, but Collins never lets her world get that specific in its implications. Mind you, the presentation of the Tributes to their audience, who ride through an arena filled with cheering multitudes in chariots, invokes the Olympics opening ceremonies, whose lockstep cultural spectacles were, after all, an innovation of the right-wing authoritarian Nazis in 1936.

Anyway, a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks shows up as Katniss’ grotesquely done-up, inveterately fake minder, but the true avatar of the movie’s tacky send-up of our own superficial mass pop culture is Caesar Flickerman (a totally delightful Stanley Tucci), the supremely unctuous television presenter of the Games. Tucci lays on the smarm as thick as drywall mud, practically licking it off his figurative trowel as if he adores the taste. He’s the bastard hate-child of American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, the BBC’s sycophantic Terry Wogan, and one of Michael Palin’s Flying Circus parodies of on-air personalities, done up like an extra from The Fifth Element. In a better-adjusted version of Hollywood, they’d give Tucci an Oscar for this.

All of this stuff is merely the pre-game show for the main event, the Hunger Games themselves, which take up the whole of the second half of the movie. Presided over by Games master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, whose dandy beard is his most appealing feature) from an antiseptic, high-tech control room straight out of The Truman Show, the deadly competition unfolds in an atmospheric boreal forest surrounded by a dome-like grid that informs the players of who has died, drops malicious forest fires and packs of bloodthirsty mega-hounds on them to stimulate the attrition, and occasionally modifies the rules to suit the whims of its makers’ will to dominion.

Director Gary Ross’ mild camera-shaking cinema-verité style begins to bear fruit at last in this stretch, building some measure of realistic tension as the blood begins to flow (and there is a bit of blood, though not enough to earn a more adult rating that would diminish gate receipts, of course). The interpersonal dynamics of the Games are settled upon early and predictably. Katniss is the clever huntress, avoiding contact with the others as long as she can and snatching every opportunity she is given. Peeta survives by feigning betrayal of his District mate (he admitted in his televised interview before the Games that he had a longstanding crush on her, a manner of revelation which Katniss understandably resents a smidgeon) and then by relying entirely upon her when both that gambit and his fallback strategy of total concealment fails him. Meanwhile, the defacto villains are the “Careers”, academy-trained kids from the richer core Districts groomed for success in the Games who hunt down and slaughter their adversaries, lead by the arrogant pinhead Cato (Alexander Ludwig). This group comes across as the self-satisfied quarterback and his fawning entourage from a stock teen comedy, only, you know, expert killers.

This has not had the positive effect on tourism that the architect envisioned. Probably because of all the death.

No guesses as to how this all turns out, ultimately. But the road to the final pitched confrontation between the plucky, authentic underdogs and the subalterns of the hegemonic ideology, which takes place atop an edifice that can only be described as Frank Gehry’s RV, is not unabsorbing, if never entirely exhilarating.

Furthermore, Collins presents a very definite perspective on the nature and limits of centralized authority, a sort of Coles’ Notes of Orwell filtered through the sense of inflated, self-righteous injustice that animates all teenaged rebellion. The Games are a fully-realized and well-considered mechanism of underclass control of the sort that has been at the heart of fictional dystopia from Oceania to the Matrix to Nea So Copros in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The authoritarian state that is capable of maintaining such a totalized system of social dominion has not yet been erected, but then this one is not without its cracks in either the facade or the foundation.

Donald Sutherland appears as the cultured, white-haired President, trimming flowers in a palatial garden while giving Crane pointers on the application of power, on the magnification of fear through the judicious application of hope. Crane does his best to follow the advice, but is confounded by the politically guileless Katniss, whose fiery independent nature scorches the earth to prepare it for the seeds of revolution. When she pays simple, graceful tribute to an in-game ally (this moment is the closest Ross’ movie gets to transcendence), it sparks instant violent demonstrations in the fallen girl’s home District. If such small acts of empathy carry such explosive potential for the overthrow of the system of oppression, it’s a wonder that it’s lasted as long as it has.

Collins’ (and, by extension, Ross’) message is not terribly sophisticated, although in the context of young adult pop culture, it’s practically Proustian. The Hunger Games strongly implies that there are larger forces of restrictive control at work in society, but it is much more invested in the proximate concerns of its teenaged target audience. These concerns, namely, are the relentless, superficial glut of cultural uniformity and ruthless competitiveness of the capitalist economic order that does not spare the young and, indeed, is aimed directly at them with the dead-eye accuracy of one of Katniss’ arrows.

The antidote offered up to this smothering (and occasionally deadly) conformity is, as usual, personal integrity and individuality. That this avenue of pursuit amplifies rather than dampens the social ills critiqued with Collins’ broad generic strokes seems not to have occurred to anyone involved. Still, at least The Hunger Games is able to diagnose those ills, even if its medicine is at best a painkiller and at worst a placebo. Youth-oriented blockbusters could do worse, and very often do. One that depicts and seeks to resist capitalist hegemony deserves our qualified appreciation, even if the resistance is basically inscribed by power itself.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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