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Monday, April 16, 2012

The Hunger Games

Moving onto this past weekend's releases, lets starts off with yet another review of The Hunger Games. Reactions have been mixed, but read on to find out what I thought.

With Harry Potter done and dusted and the Twilight saga limping to its conclusion in a few months, it's no surprise that Hollywood has turned to another kids/ teenage/ young-adult literature phenomenon for its next big cash cow. To its credit though, The Hunger Games draws more heavily on the likes of Kick Ass, Hannah, Lord of The Flies and Battle Royale than on the adventures of sparkling vampires and boy-wizards. It's not perfect and, yes, questions of originality are not ill-deserved, but The Hunger Games is a refreshing change of pace after the dreariness of the Twilight Saga and comes dangerously close to actually living up to the hype.

You may have heard much of this before but the story of the Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where a great war has left the "have" and "have nots" more divided than ever. While the "have not" masses are divided into 12 districts, the wealthy minority get their kicks primarily from the titular "Hunger Games" - a reality TV show where two children from each of the districts are pitted against each other in a "Battle Royale" to the death.  

Before getting into what works and what doesn't about the film itself, there's no two ways about it: The Hunger Games did not exactly come out of nowhere. The Japanese cult hit, Battle Royale, is clearly its most obvious "influence" (I haven't read or seen Battle Royale but even I know enough about it to know that the plot is very, very similar) but there are rather blatant traces of everything from The Lord of the Flies' kids-unleashed social commentary, The Running Man's central conceit, The Fifth Element's sense of fashion and a setting that brings to mind just about every dystopian science fiction story ever told.  

For all of this, however, The Hunger Games is far more than the sum of its parts. If nothing else, the fact that it takes such explosive, potentially upsetting and undeniably interesting subject matter and aims it squarely at a young, populist audience makes it a far more worthwhile phenomenon than its harsher critics would suggest. I haven't read the books but if they're anywhere as good as this film, they clearly deserve all their massive success and they should make for excellent companion pieces to classic allegorical science fiction literature like 1984 and Brave New World (put down those pitchforks, I'm not saying it's as good, but The Hunger Games clearly works on a similar level but will undoubtedly be more widely read by this generation of teenagers) .

The film itself simply works brilliantly as a gripping science fiction thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat for much of its rather lengthy running time. The build up to the games, which takes up about the first third or so (maybe even the first half?) of the film, features some solid world building and gives the audience a chance to get to know about and therefor care about the film's central characters. The rest of the film is devoted to the Games themselves and they're portrayed with all the visceral, nail-biting intensity that such a subject requires. It's hard even to take against the shaky "wobbly-cam" that director Gary Ross uses to capture the action - if the action was any clearer, there is no way that it would have gotten the teen-friendly ratings that it has mostly received.

Incidentally, the film was cut by 6 seconds to receive a 12-rating in the UK and the original 16 rating has been knocked down to a 13 in this country by the FPB only now, a few days after its release in cinemas, after responding to petitions for younger teenagers to be allowed to see it. It's suitable for younger teens - but really only just. Keep the kids away!

The best thing about the Hunger Games though, aside for its rock-solid storytelling and impressive intensity, is Jennifer Lawrence in the central role of Katniss Everdeen. That the film already boasts a strong, vividly drawn heroine is impressive enough but that they got an actress of the caliber of Jennifer Lawrence to bring this heroine to life is really the film's coup de grace. Lawrence already proved herself to be one of the finest young actors around with her startlingly powerful breakthrough in 2010's superb redneck-chiller, Winter's Bone, but she brings no less gravitas, subtlety and charisma to bare on her role in what is, for all intents and purposes, a great big Hollywood blockbuster. The rest of the cast is filled with great actors like Toby Jones, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and, best of all, a terrifyingly funny (or hilariously terrifying) Stanley Tucci but this is Jennifer Lawrence's film through and through.

For all that the film does get right then, it's easy to overlook its faults but it certainly isn't free of flaws and defects. Unoriginality aside, the film's primary weakness is that for all of its allegorical and satirical trappings, Ross never quite explores this fascinating aspect with quite the thoroughness and depth that this subject matter deserves. Still, it's clear that the sequels are set to explore the world of the Hunger Games more thoroughly and the revolutionary acts of the film's primary characters (revolution is undoubtedly a major theme of the film) clearly promises a fair amount of social commentary to come.

The films also never quite goes far enough with the Games itself as some of the conflicts do come across as quite pat - but again this is an essential sacrifice that the film has to make in order to reach its crucial target audience. Similarly, the rather arbitrary romantic side to the film was presumably thrown in primarily to appeal to the Twilight crowd and, again, they may well do more with it in the sequels.  

It's not perfect but The Hunger Games is a very fine piece of work that is more revolutionary and more interesting than its critics and oddly even the film itself seems to think. It should also make a deserved star out of its already terrifically talented young lead actress and, perhaps best of all, its sequels look like they may well be even better.  What more could you ask for with the opening entry in an exciting new franchise? 

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