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 Hard Target) and even a little bit from First Blood.
However, one can’t deny that it’s a heady mix she’s created; a tantalising new dish which boasts loads of recognisable ingredients and familiar flavours, but which is nonetheless 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 – they hope – do the same kind of mileage. Indeed, where John Carter (from Mars!) was the surprise flop of the decade, 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. Just about retaining some semblance of dignity, Woody Harrelson (on something of a comeback with Zombieland, Rampart, and now this) 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 (most of) those within.
Despite the vaudevillian 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. (One might wonder whether, since Ross's announcement of his departure from the series, they may choose Soderbergh to take the directorial chair for the second movie; it seems unlikely, but far from a bad possibility.)
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 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 (made worse in the UK 12A version, which is cut – try and see the 15 version if you can), 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.
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.
The Hunger Games is 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 no-doubt split-into-two-movies finale, Mockingjay over the subsequent years.
Count me in.
Let the games begin!
The off-season Box Office hit of the year hasn’t lost momentum since it was released, and remains one of the best films out at the moment. Jarring shaky-cam and Battle Royale story elements notwithstanding, don’t be put off – like I nearly was – by what you think this movie’s going to be like, it may well be a first instalment in the succeeding franchise to The Twilight Saga, but it’s far better in every way: from story to dialogue, characters to performances, direction to action. And it may remind you of everything from Hanna to Spartacus; The Running Man to Hard Target, but the end result is still a heady mix that warrants your attention, introducing us to a kick-ass new action-heroine and promising a bright future for this engaging new saga.
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