Mark Reviews Movies

The Hunger Games

THE HUNGER GAMES

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Liam Hemsworth, Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Donald Sutherland

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens)

Running Time: 2:22

Release Date: 3/22/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 22, 2012

For about 96 percent of those allotted for it, the price of the promised 15 minutes of fame of the future is death. If the participants sought the glory of winning a battle royal to the death, that would be one thing; we would expect a sensationalistic outlook on the sport. In The Hunger Games, though, the choice is not, for the most part, theirs to make.

The contestants in the titular game—children aged 12 to 18—are selected by lottery, a grim punishment for a rebellion almost a century ago of which none of them could have taken part. There's no real glory for the winner, who must stand by and watch or actively contribute to the deaths of 23 others who through no fault of their own find themselves in the same, desperate quandary. As for the other 23, the bitter irony of the phrase "Dulce et decorum est" comes to mind.

This is an oppressive scenario, and The Hunger Games, based on the first book in a trilogy of young adult books by Suzanne Collins (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Gary Ross and Billy Ray), is disconnected from that reality setup, favoring the spectacle of its second act and seeming to buy into the very dangerous game it attempts to critique. This, the dehumanization of an entire group of people based on a past transgression through forced poverty and pitting them against each other in order to distract them from their real enemy, is not heady stuff, and neither is it difficult to establish a moral center within the material. The games are an inherent evil, as are the people who perpetrate them against others.

Yet here are the Hunger Games, named—we can only suppose—after the fact that the number of times a child's name is put into the lottery is based on how much food they take from their conservatively totalitarian government (welfare for war games, basically), in all the pomp and circumstance that government insists exist within them. There's the pageantry of a parade through the Capitol, the country's central city, to fanfare and cheering crowds, as the costumed "tributes" wave triumphantly from horse-drawn chariots.

Our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow tribute from District 12 Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) stand out because they are engulfed in flames. They may be lambs to the slaughter, but they'll at least be fashionable ones.

Such is not the case in the opening of the movie, in which Katniss lives a meager life in her home district, hunting in the woods for food for her family and shooting down the dreams of Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who just wants to run away with her. The day of the Reaping—the lottery—arrives, and Katniss' sister (Willow Shields) is selected as tribute. Katniss volunteers to take her place; Peeta is chosen soon after.

Their mentor is Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who once participated in the games and (obviously) won. He teaches them the ropes—survival is the most important thing, survival only comes through supplies, and supplies only come through sponsors (In the real world, we call these convenient items falling from the sky deus ex machinas). They must win over the crowd if they hope to survive the games, and, hence, Katniss and Peeta play along with the system that reduces them to a a score based on their likeliness to win and forces them to give interviews to a blue-haired host named Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). The fashion of the future has the aesthetic of a 1980s music video, which, by the by, is only three-quarters as silly as some of the names.

Through all of this, no one appears to possess awareness of the most vital part of what we can only assume is allegory for something (reality television, growing acceptance of violence in society, or historical supposition—transferred to the future—of a United States in which the Reconstruction didn't occur?): This is wrong. The movie has its moments of clarity—only a few and all obvious. The people assemble like herded cattle to the district square. Caesar fondly remembers the moment of victory from a few years ago as footage of a young boy raising a bloodied brick plays in the background. The opening minute of the game plays in silence, save for some dissonant strings on the soundtrack, as the competitors run at each other and blood splashes.

Once the game commences, though, it's all an extended chase through an arena designed like a forest, where operators in a distant control room can manipulate the environment and generate such obstacles as fireballs and brawny hounds (as if the team of bloodthirsty teenagers isn't enough). If there are any thematic concerns in the premise, the screenplay abandons them for action, a melodramatic romance and deaths, and the political machinations of the president (Donald Sutherland) and the pointy-bearded head of the games (Wes Bentley).

The back story is fascinating enough, and a riot, in which the people of one district finally look as if they've caught on to the reality that maybe 74 years of this malarkey is more than enough, positively hints at what might come in future installments. The Hunger Games is odd, though, in that it wants its outrage at the system while, like the movie's characters, buying into it.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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