Sunday, February 24, 2013

"The Hunger Games" (2012)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson
Written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray
Directed by Gary Ross
Rated PG-13 - Violence involving children and teens
Running Time: 142 Minutes

In the future, after a great uprising, 12 Districts were set up in the ruins of the old world. The districts serve the Capital. Every year, two children are chosen as tribute from each district and brought to the Capital. There, they are trained and then set loose upon each other in a free-for-all fight to the death called the Hunger Games. When her younger sister is chosen, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her place. Katniss, along with another young man named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and their mentors Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) travel to the Capital. Katniss leaves her boyfriend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to care for her sister and mother.

At first, Katniss riles her mentors and the others. She doesn't understand the subtleties of being a tribute, of riling up the crowd and gaining sponsors. What she does understand, however, is how to hunt and survive in the wilderness. And as she takes the advice of her mentors and learns to work the crowd, she soon becomes a favorite to win this year's Hunger Games.

Survival won't be a simple matter of staying alive in the woods, however. Hunted by the vicious, well-trained tributes of the richer districts, Katniss is alone and outnumbered. Worse, the order comes from above for the games to be fixed and manipulated. The President (Donald Sutherland) sees danger in Katniss giving the people too much hope, and orders the Games' director, Crane (Wes Bentley) to stack the odds against her.

Winning the Hunger Games is about more than surviving the hunt. And the odds are not in Katniss' favor.

I wasn't sure what to expect going into "The Hunger Games," another pop-teen-romance novel series. The premise is familiar enough, with similarities to the Japanese "Battle Royale" novel and film series, and even the epically cheesy Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, "The Running Man."

The Hunger Games are set up like the ultimate reality show competition. There's much talk of sponsors, and there's a good deal of pageantry involved in the whole ordeal. The Games are broadcast across all the districts, and the control room manipulates the fight in order to make it more spectacular. Some of these concepts are a bit half-baked, however. For example, Woody Harrelson's character is quick to mention that Katniss will need to get sponsors in order to get the supplies she needs. Yet these supplies are delivered to her in simple metal canisters, and we never see anything like a commercial hawking whoever might be helping Katniss with her needs.

Still, despite some follies in the script, "The Hunger Games" is a rather well-made film. The desaturated color palette only gives way in the glistening, vibrant Capital city where people dress almost like vaudevillian characters. Wild clothing and hairstyles are the order of the day there, and it's all very strange and kind of cheesy except that the style of filming won't allow that to become funny. So as wild as some of these characters actor or dress, they don't feel as unrealistic as they look.

Stanley Tucci appears as a TV host for the Games named Caesar Flickerman, and does a fantastic job of it. He has wild hair and makeup, as well as slightly exaggerated fake teeth, which combine with his hilariously slick performance. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson both do quite well, too. Banks' Effie Trinket is, like Tucci, slathered in makeup and costume into a sort of clownish appearance, with behavior to match, but entertainingly so. Woody Harrelson is a hard-drinking man who once survived the games, and now spends his days mentoring the tributes from District 12. The fact that none of them ever wins weighs on him, and sending kids to their deaths is not how he wants to spend his life. Rounding out the supporting cast are Lenny Kravitz in a surprising role as Katniss' stylist, and Amanda Stenberg as one of the other tributes, Rue, a young girl who forms a partnership with Katniss.

Whether by design or by fault, the central romance of "The Hunger Games" doesn't ring true, despite Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson giving it their all. I'm leaning toward design, as the film (rather heavy handedly) pushes Katniss and Peeta into a relationship for the sake of ratings and to gain the favor of the audience. The look she shares with Liam Hemsworth's Gale in the final moments seems to support this, but one could also go the other way with it.

But while there are faults in the script, what elevates the film are the performances of the cast and the strong technical wizardry on display. Jennifer Lawrence is a spectacular young actress, and owns the role whether she's called upon to be bewildered, scared, anguished... whatever the script calls for, she sells. "The Hunger Games" is probably successful only with Lawrence as the lynch pin holding all the disparate parts together. Without her, it would probably just be a jumble of solid parts that don't quite gel. Instead, the film is rather watchable despite its lengthy runtime and lack of action.

Yes, lack of action. Despite being predicated on a fight to the death amongst teens, there's not much violence in "The Hunger Games." The final third is where most of the action waits, but the writers and director Ross go for suspense and a less-is-more approach. Katniss uses her skills to hide and survive, rather than taking on her opponents. She avoids confrontation whenever possible, and the Games' directors often try to force her to do something. So the third act is constructed more as a series of suspenseful vignettes, with Katniss attempting to escape or outwit her foes rather than out-fight them. It would have been easy for the film to devolve into simple action movie stereotypes, and make Katniss a more typical heroine, so props to the filmmakers for keeping her vulnerable and smart. (She's kind of like a teenage, female John McClane... but, y'know, from the first movie.)

At the end of the film, though, it's not quite a home run. The film misses its chance at some really biting social criticism, paying only lip-service to the ideas it proposes regarding the nature of the Hunger Games as propaganda and entertainment. If only those ideas had been more fully formed, "The Hunger Games" would probably have been a real classic instead of better-than-average summer blockbuster fare. But it is still quite good, anchored and elevated by excellent casting and solid direction.