The Hunger Games – Review

The Hunger Games – Review

Review by FilmFellaDarren – 7/10

Would you watch a child being killed for entertainment on national television? ‘Morally reprehensible’, I here you say.  ‘I’m a civilized human being; how dare you suggest such a thing of me’, you may add.’ Well maybe, but how many people out there have slowed down to sneak a guilty glance at a car crash? Go on, be honest, absolutely everybody has and it’s that same mentality that would lure people to watch a fight to the death on television. It may sound abhorrent but people, including you right there person trawling through cyber-space, would watch such a contest, perhaps through the veneer of disapproval, but still you’d watch it, and it would make a killing in the ratings wars.

The sinister fight to the death television show at the heart of The Hunger games may not be original – the themes here were covered with far greater impact in Battle Royale, Rollerball (1975 version), Running man, Logan’s run and more recently in the utterly chilling Series 7: the contenders, and even more recently, Gamer. It’s covering well-trodden ground then but it is certainly contentious. It’s contentious given the amount of ruthlessness and depravity that has seeped into reality television in the past decade – and the amount of apathy there is to increasingly decadent reality TV debauchery.

There’s no doubt about it, out there in TV land, there is, um, an appetite for destruction – The Hunger games is timely then.  It’s timely but is it any good? Well, for its duration it is an engaging, thematically bleak, richly plotted, surprisingly character driven film, covering the potential end-game of the television devolution road we are rapidly moving down. However, there are problems with a story that attempts to embroil child protagonists in such dark and sinister themes, then hopes to disturb both adults and children in equal measure. From a child’s and teen’s perspective, this is going to be shocking as hell and hopefully awaken a generation desensitized by televisual imagery from their soulless indifference. From an adult’s perspective, The Hunger games will lack a bit of bite. Perhaps that is not surprising considering it is directed by Gary Ross, the director of pretty mild-mannered fair like Pleasantville and Seabiscuit.

For the people out there who haven’t read Suzanne Collins’s 2008 novel – the first in a trilogy – the story is set in post-apocalyptic America. Within this world ravished by war, famine and pestilence, oppression takes the form of a sinister lottery, in which the 12 impoverished districts – that now make up the bulk of what was formerly America – have to offer up all their children who fall within the chosen age of 12-18, as a potential sacrifice in the hope of adding to their meagre rations of food and avoiding another meal of grilled squirrel. Two children, a boy and a girl are selected from each district and both are then forced to go to the control centre of this bleak world, a place called The Capitol, where they are forced to participate in a fight to the death competition with 22 other unfortunate children.

Primrose Everdeen – is selected: a meek, frail, pig-tailed young girl – she is clearly going to be a lamb to the slaughter, a point quickly and emotionally recognised by her sister Katnis Everdeen( Jennifer Lawrence), who nobly volunteers to take her younger siblings’ place in The Hunger Games, but does she have what it takes to survive in such a brutal game of death?

It’s fitting that Donald Sutherland’s character, the founding father of The Hunger Games, looks a lot like Charles Darwin. He lurks ominously in the background, seething with contempt for humanity, and does get you thinking about what Darwin would have made of our modern penchant for nurturing and cultivating human weakness. You start to wonder whether Darwin would endorse the survival of the fittest themed ‘game-show’ strangely galvanizing the twisted society here; which in a way, given Sutherland’s look, makes Darwin the villain of the film.

It’s these kind of touches that renders The Hunger games many notches above (The whisper it) Twilight-esque fodder it might appear to be to audiences over the age of twenty.  There is lots that will absorb audiences young and old. The film takes a patient build-up before it lets the games begin. We get to see lingering shots of a post- America that has been dragged back into Depression-era misery – food for thought-considering how our countries have flirted with rendering our own economies in a state of economic ruin.

We witness near ‘The Road’ levels of destitution at the start, which is going to startle the little-‘uns and is really a rather boldly dark tone for a film aimed at such a young audience.

It’s a major surprise then when we move to The Captiol and discover a city, not nearly as badly off as The Districts. It’s a place where money is thrown at garish fashion, and a world where grotesquely vapid fashion-whores, kitted out in the most vulgar opulence, laugh at the senseless massacring of minors.  They all look like they have walked out of a Terry Gilliam film like Brazil – particularly Elizabeth Blunt’s ‘reaping’ presenter. Although the film wears its influences on its sleeve, at least the influences are excellent sci-fi films. It’s further food for thought, which contemptuously satirizes the rich, suggesting how little concern the well-off might have for the impoverished even, and especially here, children. They will happily waste money on say, a silly novelty hat while children go without food – that’s a pretty relevant observation, playing off the injustices of our consumer driven materialistic world. There’s a lot more intelligence to this than meets the eye then –it taps into the rich vein of discontent we have at the wealthy right now. If one child walks out wondering whether the rich really care about poor children, well, the story has done its job.

Lately, there have been so many films so blatantly disregarding narrative, that it is refreshing to see a film attempt to slowly build a story in stages. Many people might get restless at the delay taken to get to the actual Hunger games, but if you are chomping at the bit to see the children slay each other with weaponry, then really, you should kit yourself out in hideous opulent purple satin – like the loathsome residents of The Captiol – and join the despicable audience whooping and hollering with glee at the cruel murdering of children, you villain you.

The restrain given makes the kick-off of the actual duelling sensationally intense. You’ll be taken back at just how vicious that opening sequence is – there’s enough blood-shed to make Tarantino wince. Unfortunately, the film can’t maintain that level of intensity.  You start to suspect that the film might cop-out and take the safer approach – which it does.  Perhaps they were allowed one genuinely visceral sequence within the family approved certificate, but what follows doesn’t have nearly as much of a provocative effect as the earlier set-piece. There’s also a sense that the film could have been a lot more interesting in the later stages if some of the other child victims thrown in the ‘game-show’ would have been fleshed out a lot more, rather than just being literally the token cannon fodder they are presented as. Just what will happen is marked from the start, as there are only really two characters that are three-dimensional. It’s a shame as if there was more sense of ambivalence to the nature of the central character and more characters had an inherently good nature, this could have been enthralling, with a level of drama, tension and suspense that could have shredded the nerves; as it stands it’s mildly captivating.

The main weakness of the film is that it really can’t ever shock those outside the target audience as not one of the child characters ever really convinces as a killer. Perhaps that is the point of the film, but you kind of want someone in there that is a little more of a menacing adversary for the central character. All she has to deal with are boy-band resembling blonds. Chuck Kevin from ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ in there’, now he’s unashamedly a child killer and he’s handy with a bow – which would have made an interesting bow and arrow contest given the central character’s arrow flinging skills. Poor Kevin, he was just born in the wrong time, in our era he’s a sickening villain. Throw him in this future world and he’d be a revered warrior. Someone like him would have made for a far more interesting, lively and disturbing film.

Back to the plus points, of which there are many to cover in The Hunger games. The film is a wake-up call to a generation incubated in a bubble of technology, that some survival skills, an ability to live off the land, some knowledge of how the real world works and capacity to look out for one’s self naturally, might be handy skills heading into a future of economic uncertainty. The central character is a great female heroine who gives herself a hope of surviving not through brute force, but resourcefulness, so she is a great role model for kids. She’s not a transforming robot, a vacuous teen, or a cookie-cutter singer, she’s a strong flesh and blood female, feistily played by the dead-ringer for Juliet Lewis that is Jennifer Lawrence – last seen in Winter’s bone.

Elsewhere, the ever watchable Woody Harrelson pops up to liven early proceedings, as a loose around the edges alcoholic with a healthy disdain for the system he is locked in. He is absolutely the most likeable character in the film, which is often the case with Woody. More could have been made of some of the other characters: Wes Bentley’s TV producer is not nearly as interesting an antagonist as the character he is clearly based on: Ed Harris’s character in The Truman show, which, incidentally, is another film that The Hunger games takes great handfuls of ideas from. Elizabeth Banks’ character too could have been far more interesting. Perhaps the peripheral characters will develop as the franchise progresses.

WARNING! THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A POTENTIAL PLOT SPOLIER ALERT!

Although it’s very easy to work out what will happen, what is strangely refreshing is that it can’t possibly play out like the dystopian nightmares the story creator is emulating. Usually these sci-fi future visions end with the complete demise of the system.  As director Gary Ross is clearly attempting to be the architect of a franchise, there is never a sense that the female central protagonist is ever going to be able to bring down the system, all she can hope for is to navigate a survival path, which means, for a few years and a few films at least, this heinously callous system leaves the film unscathed.

Although The Hunger games seems somewhat diluted and toned down, not nearly as full-blooded as it needs to be for a film that claims a fight to the death scenario, and definitely doesn’t go for the jugular like it really should have covering this territory, on reflection, it is a lot darker than it appears to be, it alerts a generation to issues they may never have thought about and attempts to fashion a relatively interesting story, albeit one that is almost entirely a range of influences from other, better, films.

There is content to The Hunger games though, a rare thing in a teen film, it is an interesting satire of the dehumanizing effects of television, and the central story of a girl desperately trying to hold on to her humanity when forced to be stripped of it, is quietly compelling.

So finally, I return you to my opening question: would you watch children get killed for entertainment? You can’t deny it anymore random internet visitor, The Hunger games just had the biggest opening weekend of any non-sequel film in history. Child sacrificing is evidently a theme that is appealing right now then. You certainly would watch children get killed for entertainment – you just did.

By @filmfelladarren

So what did you make of The Hunger games? All opinions welcome. Come on random internet reader, have your say.

If you like The Hunger games please have a fight to the Death film marathon that includes the following titles:

Rollerball (1975)

Battle Royale

Logan’s run

Series 7: the contenders

Running man

Gamer

Black mirror

(Charlie Brooker’s absolutely excellent dark satire of our obscene screen obsessed culture).  It’s a Channel for 3 parter broadcast last year. Seek it out.

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About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

4 Responses to The Hunger Games – Review

  1. I’ve seen none of the others, but heard the rest are better. I saw the Hunger Games, as far as your insights and thoughts about it reflecting our current society I agree with most, and would agree that it does a decent job. However I feel that the camera work, and the overall lack of development of the other characters made it rather unpleasant to watch. I had a headache and my eyes hurt from the constant shaky camera. I also feel the movie should have honestly been rated R. I understand what audience it was targeted for, but I feel they should have just shown the gore. I didn’t go to see gore, but I find it rather poor the way they basically shook the camera a ton for the other death scenes/tried to obscure the deaths.

    I have also not read the books, but it felt like something was just missing from the movies in terms of story. From what I was told by a friend who has read the books, there was a 13th district that rebelled, and was nuked by the capitol, and the hunger games are basically the retribution for 13’s disobedience. What bothers me with this whole premise is the fact that the capitol needs the district’s resources that they produce. They cannot afford to nuke away the rest of the districts without harm to themselves. I think too many writers try to come up with these elaborate post-apocalyptic stories that just have too many holes and faults in them.

    my lousy 2 cents, for what it’s worth.

    • Filmfella Darren says:

      travelerofold – thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’ve heard correctly, every one of those films on that list is better than The Hunger Games. I agree with you – it’s hard to make a film that suggests fight to the death action but tries to keep it within a family certificate. The film was always going to be compromised from the start. That said, I don’t think it was as toned down as it could have been, and although visually and action wise it lacks punch, thematically it is still deeply twisted and warped. I think you have to take into consideration the audience it is aimed at. For the teen market, it is going to be out of this world. I didn’t have the same problems as you with the camera work. They weren’t going for an action set-piece heavy blockbuster with a thousand edits per second so I found the camera work to be refreshingly steady. And did think a number of the deaths drifting by with little impact as the characters were just there to be eliminated. I did have a problem with the CGI particularly the last sequence too. I think the story would have been more interesting with the nuke subplot you mentioned there. And yes, you have a point about the bad post-apocalyptic films with loose plots of late. Off the top of my head I can think of three that fit your description: Legion; Resident Evil sequels and The Book of Eli.If you are looking for a great post apocalyptic film, check-out The Road.

  2. Filmfella Darren says:

    I’ve just noticed that I wrote Elizabeth Blunt rather than Elizabeth Banks. What on earth was I thinking? Sorry to Elizabeth if she’s reading.

  3. I just watched the movie, and I noticed the flag for the country. The style of the eagle reminded me of hitlers aesthetics and the colors are the same as communist china. Also the hair and dress for district 12 looks so much like that during the great depression whereas the fashion in the Capitol is like that of France in the 1700s right before the revolution. The love story I think was forced upon the main character. Clearly the boy felt for her but I wonder if she really returned his affection. Haymitch did tell her to give him a better kiss and they were advised that it was all a show. When peeta said in the beginning that he hopes the games won’t change or own him katniss said she couldn’t afford to do that. The way she acts on the talk show is all fake too. Haven’t read the book yet but I’m sure it’s better than the movie. 🙂 I don’t enjoy seeing children killing each other but I do like futuristic brazil/1984 like movies. 🙂 ps-I remember reading a short story in English class in high school about a poor community. Every year they have a lottery and the winner is killed. I forget why, maybe so there’s one less mouth to feed. I bet the author took inspiration from that idea. ~rach

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