The Hunger Games

March 28th, 2012 - No Comments

I’m a fan of the Reality TV as Deadly Bread & Circuses genre of film.

Yes. It’s totally a genre. I think since the eighties there’s been at least two blockbusters released a decade focussed around the charmingly visceral concept of people killing each other, live on pay-per-view. While I’m not sure anything will come close to topping The Running Man in the category for my personal favourite, the hype surrounding The Hunger Games was leading me to suspect there’d be something to give it a run for it’s money… (oh look… a pun…)

A quick riddle. How do you make the deaths of more than a few dozen characters (actual characters, not disaster movie scenery that happens to resemble humans) over the space of a two and a bit hour movie feel significant? Sad to say, I’m not sure the film provided me with a suitable answer.

Oh yes. Spoilers. For a four year old book movie adaptation.

When crafting a fictional dystopia, or indeed any bit of science fiction, it is important to retain a sense of the real- the world the viewer inhabits. This aids the suspension of disbelief when the fantastic elements are introduced, and gives us as an audience a real connection to the universe that we have a window on. This becomes especially problematic in a dictatorship dystopia where bloodshed is there to be spilled and celebrated. Different members of the genre seem to pull this aspect, a cornerstone of science fiction writing, off to various degrees- the masterpiece here being Series 7: The Contender which captures the feeling of a nineties TV show to the worrying letter, the weakest arguably appearing to be Gamer which barely looks like it takes place on the same planet. The Hunger Games instantly throws us into a barely explained world split very finely into an aristocratic Capitol and a worryingly underpopulated looking dozen dilapidated Districts. It’s difficult to believe they’d have a functioning society that’s put up with three-quarters of a century of this kind of disparity- especially since it looks like 1/12th of your country can fit inside a compound not much larger than a school yard. The Capitol sports fashions that I felt were skewed a bit too hard into science fiction, crossing in places into weird androgyny I expect from horrifying Japanese pop songs. Their world, in comparison to the bits of the Districts I could see behind the shaky cam and extreme close ups, looks too pristine in contrast- which is the obvious intent, but hard to see when it feels like the lighting is off on the CG television sets and plinths.

That being said, a saving grace for these things can be the characterisation. This is primarily a reason The Running Man ranks so high on my list for this entirely legitimate genre. Arnie sells his role in his… usual manner… but the supporting characters felt real, like they had motivations and lives and cable-TV and sports deals and university doctorates (PROFESSOR Sub Zero I hope you recall…) outside the games. Sadly, at the beginning of the film Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss as though barely thawed out from an over-long stay in the cryogenics lab where they seem to be keeping all these distant-eyed, brunette lead film characters these days. It starts difficult to relate to the outdoorsy, barely defined entity of an girl of undefined age. As the movie progresses she does indeed thaw enough to be sympathetic and overall the performance is very good, but e earlier scenes with Katniss’ family and boyfriend (?) feel… they feel resigned to fate. Brows beaten and utterly crushed under the weight of the system. Not something I associate with teenagers… but I guess thematically appropriate…

Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, giving a believable shot at survivor syndrome through alcoholism, slowly being forgotten as he takes his job as a trainer more seriously) and Cinna aside I couldn’t really find myself finding an emotion spare for any character in e movie. Even Roe, yes poor sweet honestly she was totally blonde and white in the novel Roe is “properly” introduced a little too late and killed off a little too early for me to connect to as an audience member. Her funeral scene is easily the most moving part of the movie, and the resulting District 11 riot immediately afterwards is also strong: a snapshot into a downtrodden world that probably should have done with a little more screen time.

Indeed there’s a lot in the second half of the movie, once the titular Games are under way that really helps sell the movie. The initial bloodbath at the Cornucopia, the cave scene, the scenes of Katniss under the effects of hallucinogens are well captured. The outdoor scenes from that moment on shake off the claustrophobic, extreme close up wobbly cam that plague the earlier scenes in District 12 and feel more relaxed- an odd state for a movie where the dozen remaining characters are expected to hunt each other down, but one that feels perfectly suited. The unsettling juxtaposition allows for the character growth I’d been waiting for to happen to bloom, and the relationship between Katniss and Petaa (can’t quite believe that’s how it’s meant to be spelt… Wikipedia must be trolling me here) to get some literal screen time – albeit not played up quite for the Doing It For The Ratings stakes I believed the film would be going for with it’s Reality TV Commentary angle (which… isn’t played up at all. Sorry. Just isn’t…)

Its a shame then that this handful of strong scenes are crossed with a mesh of unbelievable elements that feel out of place in what was, primarily a fairly believable, if excessive technology. Why would there be genetically engineered hallucination wasps? Why would you project the children’s deaths on a big overhead projector laser matrix when a tannoy from the island of Battle Royale would have sufficed? What kind of set designer rigs every tree in what appears to be a hundred square miles of woodland not only with cameras, but to explode AND to shoot poorly CG’ed fireballs? And where the hell did those dogs come from?! They get mentioned as being “illusions”,but even if we ignore something as unbelievable as a hologram being projected as something that complex in a pitch-black forest they probably wouldn’t be designed in such a way to bend light to an extent that they’d do real damage, especially when the draw for your fictional TV show is that the kids are the ones killing each other. Considering these things are the literal harbingers of the end of the movie (or the finale, as Katniss puts it in a mild fourth wall violating moment…) they feel like they are quite literally pulled out of the arse end of the special effects department.

All those elements scream “adaption problems” to me. The kind of things solely made up to attempt cramming a book that contains a heft you can kill albatrosses with into two hours of screen time (and once you’ve added all those survival montages, CG flame skirts and half an unnamed cast included, you’ve got not a lot of time left to fill). I guess I’m just going to have to add the actual books to my already impossible to get through reading list so I can cross check that kind of thing is expected to fly in these utterly serious novels that are Totally Not Primarily Written For Children…

Overall if I’m going to have to rank my favourite Bloodsport games in a list, this adorable tale of state sanctioned infanticide lottery will rate middle of the pack, sadly far behind Series 7, and a good stride behind Rollerball. It was an enjoyable view, but just judging by the sheer amount of problems I can spot with it, and it’s genuine lack of closure that was being complained about as I headed out the theater, it probably will leave anyone like me feeling a bit empty afterwards. Hungry, even.

Heh. Puns….

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