What would happen if you mixed George Orwell, Battle Royale, and the fashion sense of a tailor for a royal family whilst having an acid trip? You’d get The Hunger Games.
Now before I get into my review it seems appropriate that I add this disclaimer at the front, considering the hype for this adaptation has been massive: I DID NOT READ THE BOOK BEFORE VIEWING THE FILM, SO MY CRITICISM IS GOING OFF THE FILM AND THAT ALONE. I WENT IN SIMPLY AS AN AVID FILMGOER, NOT AS A FAN OF THE NOVELS, AND I VIEWED IT AS SUCH, SO I APOLOGIZE IF MY VIEWS OF THE STORY AREN’T AS COMPLETE AS YOURS–THE FANS’–ARE. Okay, so that’s out of the way.
The film opens in the world of Panem, a totalitarian society comprised of the ruling Capitol and its subordinate twelve districts. The Capitol is comprised of affluent, wealthy, and flamboyantly-dressed people who keep the working-class citizens in the districts under control after they organized an unsuccessful rebellion that led to the destruction of a thirteenth district over 70 years prior. To show the extent of their authority, the Capitol subjects two children, a boy and a girl, from each district to a battle-to-the-death-style competition each year (which is broadcast in real time to all the districts, with play-by-play commentary) called the Hunger Games.
In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence) has her life thrown out of balance when she volunteers to replace her sister as the chosen female “tribute” for her district in the upcoming Hunger Games. She and her district’s male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are taken to the Capitol and submitted to a life of luxury and intense training before they are placed within the arena with twenty-two other contestants in the deadliest and morally-complex battle of their lives. Blood is shed and truces are tested.
Many critics have noted the film’s similarities to the 1999 Japanese book and subsequent 2000 film Battle Royale, and having seen said film I was surprised as to just how similar they were in terms of certain plot elements. However, thematically and visually they are at quite a contrast, so I am willing to put my pseudo-hipster grievances of originality to the side.
Speaking of themes, for a film aimed primarily at young adults it’s surprisingly deep and morally complex. It poses the question of: “Would you be able to kill another human being”–(The Most Dangerous Game, much?)–“and a child, at that?” It serves as a great critique on the state of entertainment in our Western world, on how we are tolerable of the levels of violence portrayed in our media and our obsession with these grotesque shows we like to call “reality” television. Secondly, the film is an interesting observation on social class division, showing how the higher classes can so easily ignore the inequality and struggles that the lower classes face. (Okay, I’ll stop with the sociopolitical angle now.)
The pacing of the film is great–it never drags but it doesn’t feel too short. The plot always denies your expectations–that is, there are a lot of twists thrown in; they’re not always satisfying, but they do keep you actively guessing. There is a lot that’s left unanswered, though, including the history of Panem and the rise of this totalitarian state, which I hope is explained in the later entries in the trilogy.
The acting was surprisingly decent, as well, with all of the leads and even the supporting actors showing a great amount of emotion and/or eccentricity, the latter of which was thankfully never overdone (Stanley Tucci probably stole the film for his enthusiastic role as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman).
Technically speaking, the CG effects were average, but the costume design, make-up, and overall production design was fantastic and successfully added to the film’s themes and the characters’ personalities. I’ll be surprised if the film doesn’t get at least a couple nods at the next Oscars in these fields.
But where it won’t be getting a nod is in the cinematography field. Maybe it was because I was sitting in the front row of the theater (it filled up FAST), but it was irritating to watch at times because of the constant motion of the camera–sometimes you really couldn’t tell what was going on (I was actually glad when a stationary shot came up!). I mean, there are times when the Shaky Cam method is effective and involving (see: Children of Men), but this is not one of them. This level of intensity does not make the viewer feel involved or intrigued, but instead jolted and disoriented (which doesn’t really fit within the context of the story). I mean–goddamn!
However, looking at the business behind the film, I think it’s safe to assume that the Shaky Cam method was used so drastically because it had to do with securing the film’s PG-13 rating. Being based off a novel aimed at young adults, a large percentage of the fanbase would not have been able to see the film if the violent deaths during the game segment were clearly shown. With the camera shaking back and forth, the image is blurred and thus the violence is slightly less noticeable, and voilà!–a PG-13 rating can be secured. (If I may be honest, I was actually looking forward to a little more violence and was a little let down when most of it was “shaken” out…but maybe that’s just my sadistic side showing.)
It’s not the defining film in its genre, and I doubt that it will be the best film of the year, but it is a thought-provoking piece of young adult cinema that is stylistically impressive and emotionally deep. And considering what teen drama has devolved to, I’d say that this is the best you’re gonna get.