The Hunger Games is much more than just a reworking of Battle Royale done for the Twilight generation.
Although you would be forgiven for assuming as much from the trailers and plot synopsis, it has the potential to be a much broader-scope franchise than Battle Royale, with a considerably broader appeal than anything that The Twilight Saga has to offer (as well as a better story, script, dialogue, characters, characterisation, performances, direction and action).
Indeed, if you’re prepared to forgive its somewhat familiar, sometimes predictable plot, and accept the young adult sensibilities; embracing this new Blockbuster franchise for what it is, then you’ll probably find yourself drawn into a 4-film series which has the potential to only get better with each successive, larger-scale instalment.
“May the odds be ever in your favour.”
Set in a dystopic, post-apocalyptic future, a totalitarian government – presiding in an immensely wealthy Capitol – rules over 12 vastly poorer satellite states. To ‘commemorate’ an almost Century-old unsuccessful uprising, the Capitol annually demands the sacrifice of two members of each district’s population – one of each sex, aged between 12 and 18 – to a last-man-standing tournament called The Hunger Games. Regarding it as a tribute which will remind the impoverished members of the surrounding districts of the dear cost of rebellion, players are drafted at random via a lottery system, and taken away to be trained for their 24-1 fight-to-the-death.
In District 12, Katniss Everdeen is a 16 year-old girl who takes care of her 12-year old sister, providing for her and their unreliable mother through hunting fowl across the border in a restricted zone. When her sister is picked for the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place, saving her from almost certain death.
Alongside Peeta, a baker’s son who has also been drafted from District 12, Katniss is taken to the Capitol, where she is to be trained by her new mentor, former Hunger Games victor Haymitch Abernathy. Despite her abhorrence of the totalitarians, and of everything that the games represent; reluctant to take any help or make any friends, Katniss soon finds that she must embrace her fate – against her instincts – if she wants to make it through this most dangerous game.
Based on the first book of The Hunger Games Trilogy by novelist Suzanne Collins, director Gary ‘Seabiscuit’ Ross’s opening salvo is pretty damn good, suitably setting the scene for the franchise with an excellent introduction to Collins’s own warrior heroine, Katniss Everdeen; her character and her path loosely modelled on the trials of the Greek myth of Theseus.
Collins says she was inspired in her tale by channel-hopping between reality TV challenge shows and news footage of the Iraq War; the end result – whilst it does bear a striking resemblance to the Japanese novel-based film Battle Royale – is certainly of a grander scale (although there’s nothing particularly deep in terms of socio-political undertones here). Still, in my opinion, there’s no way Collins didn’t borrow a couple of ideas along the way, not just from ‘Royale but also the likes of The Running Man, Spartacus, The Most Dangerous Game (or the John Woo/Van Damme actioner Hard Target) and even a little bit from Rambo’s First Blood.
There’s absolutely nothing original about Collins’s ingredients. However, one can’t deny that it’s a heady mix she’s created; a tantalising dish which boasts loads of recognisable and familiar flavours, but which is nevertheless a new dish.
You can see precisely why the production company Lionsgate swiftly hopped aboard this particular band wagon; coming to the end run on their 5-part Twilight Saga, it’s the best opportunity to ignite a new franchise which will – if there’s any justice in the world – do the same kind of mileage. Indeed, where John Carter (from Mars!) was the surprise flop of the year, The Hunger Games was perhaps the runaway sleeper hit. Whilst an expected success, it was never expected to be this successful – becoming the biggest Box Office Debut for a non-sequel (and biggest of all time, behind The Dark Knight and Harry Potter 7) and garnering the largest opening weekend for a movie not released in the Summer period. It looks like they backed the right horse.
The great thing about The Hunger Games is that it has the potential to offer up something darker than Harry Potter; even darker than Twilight, and yet based within just as rich a fantasy world as either; with just as much book-based backing to support it. It’s not the next Batman Begins; it’s not even Game of Thrones, but it is a quality first chapter to a great action-adventure world that has enough going for it to appeal to more than just tweenagers.
Katniss Everdeen is a great new action-heroine character, equal parts Hanna’s Saoirse Ronan, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Kick Ass’s Chloe Moretz – so it’s no wonder that all three superb upcoming young actresses were considered for the role. But Jennifer Lawrence was an inspired choice, having proven that she’s capable of bringing quality performances to everything from acclaimed indie dramas (Winter’s Bone) to Hollywood blockbusters (as Mystique – apart from Fassbender / McAvoy – she was one of the best things about X-Men: First Class). Here, she imbues her strong-willed, courageous character – a sharp shot with a bow and arrow – with just enough warmth to make her likeable and just enough vulnerability to make us root for her; to make us want her to win.
In terms of supporting players, the other 23 contestants are built up to a lesser – or no – degree mainly because they either represent sympathy victims, pure cannon fodder, or psychos who have to be evil enough to make us want our heroine to kill them. Only Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta stands out because he joins our heroine as being the other one of the two selected from their District, becoming an unlikely key element in the story.
Still there are plenty of familiar faces, even if you can barely recognise some of them. Seeing as this is set in some crazy future, everybody in the wealthy Capitol dresses in wacky outfits and has ridiculous makeup/hair/facial hair (perhaps the author’s dig at modern fashion!), leaving the likes of Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones, The Devil Wears Prada), Elizabeth Banks (Role Models, The Next Three Days), and Wes Bentley (American Beauty, Underworld: Awakening) lost behind ice-cream-cone blue hair, a Marie Antoinette-era look, and a ridiculously-styled goatee, respectively, alongside the likes of Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor) and even singer Lenny Kravitz.
Tucci goes way over the top as the ‘presenter’ of The Hunger Games, his eccentricities frequently bordering on the irritating, whilst Bentley tries desperately to be taken seriously as the manager of the ‘Games, controlling the on-the-ground action on behalf of a puppet-master played by Don’t Look Now’s Donald Sutherland (who is just that little bit too old for the role, occasionally looking fractionally doddery, like Peter O’Toole in Troy), who is the President of the Capitol.
Conversely, standing out amidst those struggling to retain dignity in their new get-ups we get Woody Harrelson. He’s on something of a comeback now, what with Zombieland and now Rampart, and hopefully his bit part in this higher profile trilogy should cement his future. He brings us a great little supporting role in the form of drunken mentor Haymitch, an ex-winner of the ‘Games who has just about had enough of them, and is inspired by Katniss’s perpetual disdain for the Capitol and those within.
“A little hope is good; a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, so long as it’s contained. So... contain it.”
Despite the vaudevillian, Tudor costumes, Collin’s characters spring forth – for the most part – in all their glory, with just enough depth to them to distinguish them from outright clichéd caricatures, and the game cast do their best to round out these colourful entities.
Director Gary Ross also does a competent job holding everything together, even if much of the praise / blame should probably go on his second unit director, none other than Steven Soderbergh himself (Ocean’s Eleven, Haywire). He keeps the action and the combat gritty; indeed even most of the opening scene-setting footage is of the handheld variety, to give you a taste for life in the impoverished districts.
Unfortunately it’s not all good news. Although it would be foolish to regard this as anything even approximating a perfect movie, some of the issues that it has – beyond the over-familiarity of many of the story elements – spawn from this desperate urge to meet that precious PG-13 rating (here, not far off a 12A). With the Bourne films, including The Bourne Legacy capable of hitting the mark – and reaching that wider teenage-or-younger audience, The Hunger Games has adopted a similar path and gone for lots of shaky-cam when it comes to the actual fight sequences and the kills.
More than a dozen of the kids involved in the trial are dispatched in ways that are almost impossible to decipher through the sheer freneticism of the cinematography (the opening slaughter takes out almost half of the entire contestants, not that you could tell without the sounding gongs), and I can see how some viewers might grow a little bored of the overuse, even if it is mainly dominant at the beginning of the movie. Still, it’s always easier to handle shaky-cam at home than it is in the cinema, and this is certainly the case here – once you get used to it, The Hunger Games is certainly not softened up enough to have no impact.
Of course this is the ‘Unseen Version’, but, as far as I can tell, all that means is that we get the uncut version which saw a limited release as a 15 in the UK, rather than the cut 12A version. Fans should be pleased by this, but, since the unseen version is the same as the US PG-13 theatrical release, it’s not exactly a huge bonus. What does it actually mean in terms of content? Not much. A few extra shots of violence during the initial slaughter; a slightly longer look at the later death scenes; more time dwelling on wounds and more blood – but only as much as you could get away with in a PG-13. In fact it’s not even all that ‘Unseen’ as it was played Theatrically in the UK on late showings during the movie’s original run. They could have just not called it the ‘Unseen Version’ and merely had it rated 15 (as opposed to the cut DVD release, which is a 12) but I’m guessing the mystery of the ‘Unseen Version’ labelling will draw in yet more customers.
Another minor but more expected issue comes from the conclusion of course. Aside from the Lord-of-the-Rings-style multiple-ending montage, which would smack as completely dissatisfying if this was a standalone feature, there is an overwhelming sense of no purpose to this first instalment; something which really can only be quashed by keeping in mind that it is just the introduction to the characters – Katniss most importantly – and that the broader scale will be further unveiled in the sequels.
Indeed if you can get past the niggles; the hesitation – and that tug of resistance spawned from having to sit through too many Twilight movies – you will likely find that this is the start of something quite special. Characters well-formed and ready to be set loose in the sequels; a heady backdrop perfectly formed upon which to play out these tales.
I’ve purposefully steered clear of the books purely because I don’t want the knowledge to ruin my surprise in the movies: this tactic worked for the first film and I’m sure it’ll hold me in good stead come the epic Mockingjay conclusion. It may have had a somewhat slow, introductory beginning, started off being mainly focussed on the ‘Games themselves; and the ‘Games may still feature plenty of the next round in the sequel, Catching Fire, but I can certainly smell a revolution coming, and I can’t wait.
The Hunger Games is just the tip of the iceberg: the opening chapter in a promising new franchise, boasting action, thrills, and adventure; lightly political commentary and a suitably well-structured future/fantasy setting; just enough romance to quench the masses but not put off those bored by it; and enough dark material to give it more substance than what you usually expect from this kind of young-adult novel-based fare. The cast are strong enough to convince; Jennifer Lawrence’s heroine is perfect to root for, and the end result is an introductory movie which will undoubtedly have a great deal of people eagerly anticipating 2013’s sequel, Catching Fire, and the split-into-two-movies finale, Mockingjay, over the subsequent years. Count me in.
“Hope. It is the one thing stronger than fear.”
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