Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Running Time: 142 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's generally a rule to judge a movie for what it is rather than what it isn't, but the highly anticipated The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins' bestselling young adult novel, might be the rare exception. The problems with this film are all in what it isn't. Having not read the original novel, I wouldn't even attempt to speculate how "faithful" director Gary Ross' adaptation is to the source material. Like all adaptations, that point's irrelevant unless you've read it. I have no idea how much or how little of what Collins wrote got lost in the finished product or what was cut, changed or added, but what ends up on screen doesn't quite connect for one reason: It has a premise that must be taken seriously to succeed and the filmmakers didn't do it. All its other problems stem from that. Of course, when the book was optioned producers saw dollar signs, which had to greatly diminish the chances of this story being told the way it needed to be.

Some movies can get away with cutting corners and watering everything down to pander to the masses but this clearly can't. Not a post-apocalyptic reality show battle to the death that takes place in a dystopian future. It's too high concept to be simplified and still work. But it's entertaining and features an unbelievable performance by its female lead. I just wish the movie had the guts to go as far as Jennifer Lawrence does, even as I hesitate associating the word "guts" with her choice of a project this safe. We're also dealing with a concept we've seen executed before (and occasionally much better) in similarly themed movies like Battle Royale, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Running Man and The Condemned. What I can't recall is it ever being treated so sunny. It's probably one of the oddest match-ups of story and and tone you'll find in the genre and I can't say I felt that the two leads were seriously in danger at any point. And even if they are, Ross goes out of his way to make sure we don't see it. Or even feel it. Luckily, it's is able to fall back on some its dumb, over-the-top decisions by telling a story about greedy executives making dumb, over-the-top decisions for the sake of popular entertainment.

The story takes place in a future nation called Panem where boys and girls aged 12-18 are recruited to participate in "The Hunger Games," a televised annual event where the chosen two "tributes" from each of the twelve districts fight to the death until there's a single victor crowned. In a lottery (referred to as a "Reaping") selecting the participants, terrified 12 year-old Primrose Everdeen's (Willow Shields) name is called, prompting her older sister Katniss (Lawrence) to volunteer in her place as tribute. Joining her as the male tribute from District 12 is Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son with few skills who harbors a secret crush on Katniss. Together they're trained for competition by hard drinking former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and must not only physically defeat their opponents from the other districts in the battle arena, but win over corporate sponsors and audiences that can help give them a much needed advantage in the the Games. Watching over it all is the diabolical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), whose "Gamemaker" Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) manipulates the rules to provide maximum entertainment. Katniss and Peeta's only goal is to survive.

The film's prologue is clumsy on a number of levels, chief among them the fleshing out of this futuristic world. It's hard not to watch the Reaping ceremony sequence and not be reminded of Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery," which Collins must have taken direct inspiration from in writing the novel. But it's basic conceit of a lottery in which citizens are randomly chosen for death is where the similarities end. All the potential terror of that scene is muted by Elizabeth Banks' ridiculous appearance as District 12's escort Effie Trinket. She looks and sounds so silly it's impossible to take a word she's saying seriously, much less the announcement that these teens are essentially being sent to die with a backstory and explanation for the Games that's mostly left unclear or partially developed. The garish costuming and make-up is a constant problem and distraction throughout that's not just limited to Banks. Perhaps as an effort to remain true to the source material or hammer home the idea of the future as an overproduced spectacle, everyone's dressed for Halloween. But the real reason is because it's set in the future and in the future people must dress weirdly. At least that seems to be the extent of it, whether the choice is germane to the story or not.

As much that goes wrong in the set-up, it's made up for when Katniss and Peeta arrive at the Capitol to train and we get genuine insight into how the Games work and what's required to win. Katniss is considered a favorite early on with her hunting and archery skills, but her steely determination and no-nonsense attitude proves to be a hurdle in gaining the favoritism of corporate donors who can provide life-sustaining supplies in the arena. Aside from her sacrifice for her little sister, you could say she lacks what would be described in reality TV terms as the "likability factor." Peeta, on the other hand, is a charming schmoozer despite possessing very little physical skills that will help him excel. Initially stand-offish, their trainer Haymitch and eventually shows them some of the tricks of the trade and in one of the film's best sequences, they're both interviewed by blue-haired Hunger Games host Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), whose hilariously broad style of questioning kind of resembles Martin Short's Jiminy Glick. Whether true or not, their narrative begins to take shape as "the star-crossed lovers" of District 12. There's no doubt Peeta would like it to be, despite Katniss' sort of boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) anxiously waiting for her back home.

There's genuine suspense in the arena when Ross realizes his movie has to stay out of its own way because Lawrence can take care of the rest. The only true distraction is when he seems to bend over backwards to preserve the PG-13 rating by cutting as fast as possible during the action scenes, making it extremely difficult to make heads or tails out of what's happening. I understand it's based on a teen novel and I'm not asking it be a bloodbath, but it's kind of  insulting how obviously any depiction of violence is avoided. If a future society's warped enough to hold such an event and televise it, something tells me it wouldn't be sanitized and censored not to offend viewers. It's only fair a movie based on that idea be held to the same standard. Nolan's Batman trilogy was rated PG-13 and no one accuses those films of wimping out, so it's not too much to ask for a happy balance that would have delivered on the story's violent premise without affecting its commercial prospects, which were always admittedly strong no matter what. Ross probably wasn't the right director to do that, though there's no telling how much pressure he got from the studio to tone it down. Judging from the end result, probably a lot.

The supposedly grueling elements in the arena don't play nearly as much of a factor as we were led to believe early on. No one appears to be in danger of starving, dehydrating, and everyone sure looks clean considering they're in a battle to the death that's been dragging on for days. I never thought Katniss or Peeta would die and not just because they have to make the rest of the installments either. We should have at least felt the possibility a little. The one brief moment where you really do involves a showdown with District 2's female tribute Clove (Orphan's Isabelle Fuhrman). It lasts only a minute or two, but it doesn't feel sanitized in the slightest. The fire and intensity this girl has in her eyes leaves no doubt she's willing to kill Katniss at any cost and will likely relish every second of it. The motivation of the attack, the editing, the girls' performances, and the ending of the sequence is unforgettable, encapsulating everything the rest of the film should have been but wasn't. The implication that many of Katniss' opponents (led by Alexander Ludwig's villainous Cato)  have been prepared at an early age to accept their destiny to participate is one of the script's strongest ideas, as is the discussion about just how entertaining this telecast should be for the public. Sutherland's President Snow wants to give them someone to root for but takes issue with having them root too much, suspecting that Wes Bentley's Gamesmaker may instead be dishing out "hope." 

All the controversy surrounding Jennifer Lawrence not looking right for the part is pretty ridiculous. No, she doesn't look like she's starving (in other words she's a pretty, normal sized 22 year-old girl) but who really cares? When you have the opportunity to cast the best actress available for the part, you do it. No questions asked. Forget about her being the least of the film's problems, the conviction and gravitas she brings to Katniss is the sole reason this even comes close to working. There are many times when the story strains to be taken seriously and seems too juvenile but Lawrence refuses to go there. She takes this dead seriously and imbues the picture with more passion than it frequently deserves. Initially confused as to why an Oscar nominee would even take on a project like this, she answers my question by turning her into a character that feels stronger and smarter than it must have originally been conceived as. That said, I'm still kind of disappointed she took the part, if only because she's so clearly too talented for this. The last thing we need is this franchise to swallow her career whole much like Twilight did to the formerly promising Kristen Stewart, who's now basically just a human ATM machine. Just the mere mention of Stewart's name in relation to any kind of serious acting invokes uncontrollable laughter because of her association with that series. The best news coming out of this is that Lawrence gives you hope she can overcome that stigma.

Josh Hutcherson more than holds his own as the vulnerable Peeta, even if everyone in the picture seems to take a backseat to Lawrence and her command over the screen. Hemsworth's hardly in the movie at all, though I have the awful feeling his role will increase  in unwelcome ways over the course of the next film or two. Pointless Victorian costuming aside, Harrelson and Tucci are superb in their roles, especially Tucci who brings an undercurrent of phoniness and menace to his TV host that seems absent in the rest of the script. Lenny Kravitiz is gold in his relatively brief scenes as stylist Cinna, knowing the injustice of what's happening but cleverly playing the system for his tributes' benefit. Bentley has his juiciest supporting role in just about forever, making the most of his limited screen time as Seneca. Any of Elizabeth Banks' efforts are undone by the fact she's essentially playing a party clown.

Possibly the best subplot overall, involves 12-year-old District 11 tribute Rue, well played by Amandla Stenberg. In a relatively short amount time this character makes a big impact and her makeshift alliance with Katniss is one of the few elements of the film that really clicks emotionally. I'm tempted to say Ross could have shown more scenes of how viewers reacted to the competition, but given how lazily this future was depicted it was probably a wiser move not to. After a strong middle section, the movie really flies off its rails in the last act as the constant changing of the Games' rules is presented sloppily enough that at best it feels like plot manipulation, and at worst, deux ex machina. The Truman Show this ain't and the idea that these Games are "controlled" only rears its head at the most inopportune times, complete with some really bad CGI animals that could give Twilight a run for its money.

Through all this, we do care about these two characters, even if the ending has me seriously worried the entire story will soon be going the sappy tween romance route. They got away with it this time by incorporating it as a plot point in the Games themselves but now it seems inevitable that angle of the story will take center stage. I'd feel more comfortable recommending this installment if there seemed to be more potential moving forward, but that's a real long shot considering how this went. But at least the movie doesn't misrepresent itself. It's exactly what it says it's going to be from the beginning. It's better than expected and  not exactly another Twilight, despite the studio and media doing whatever it can to play it up as such. The ideas are there, even if they're merely implied rather than explored. It's a near-miss, albeit a fascinating one worth talking about. This is what happens when commercial concerns impede on the creative process.  Forget about a sequel. They should just go ahead and remake this one right now. Get a different director, slap on an R rating and just go to town. Like the Games depicted in it, The Hunger Games is all about overproduced entertainment at the expense of emotions, perhaps coming much closer to its story origins than was even intended.       

No comments: