25 March 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games


C

The Hunger Games
2012, 142mins, 12
Director: Gary Ross
Writer (s): Gary Ross, Billy Ray, Suzanne Collins
Cast includes: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Alexander Ludwig, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland
UK Release Date: 23rd March 2012

Based on a series of bestselling books by Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games” is a certified box-office goldmine for Lionsgate. Having never read the immensely popular source material, I approached the project looking to view it purely on cinematic terms, hoping for a crunching, biting and excitable dose of “Battle Royale” style satire. In reality the picture is a disappointing and regularly wearisome endeavour, sporadically inspired but paced incredibly poorly. Director Gary Ross takes the gig seriously, rounding together a band of reliable actors and showing a willingness to push family friendly cinema to its very boundaries, but these things are not enough to alleviate the boredom which too often slips into the loosely cobbled together narrative. “The Hunger Games” is at times imposing, but such moments are outweighed by overexposure to unnecessary characters and an unwillingness to focus fully on the potentially thrilling survivalist element at the story’s core.

In the futuristic and ashen world of Panem the country is divided into 12 districts, each year two teenagers selected from the respective regions to compete in a fight to the death known as The Hunger Games. In order to prevent her young sister from enduring the experience, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, marvellous as always) volunteers to compete; she and reluctant Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) selected to represent the deprived District 12. On arrival at Panem’s lavish Capitol, the pair are introduced to their drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, doing the best he can with a nothing part), forced immediately into a harsh and relentless training regime. When the games finally arrive both Peeta and Katniss have identified their respective strengths; placed inside the wooded arena to do battle with the fearsome likes of Cato (Alexander Ludwig), a skilful and merciless competitor from District 1. As the days roll by and the other warriors begin to fade, Katniss demonstrates tremendous courage and honour, the whole of Panem eventually backing her. Her relationship with Peeta also unravels in a strange fashion, the pair growing closer and more intimate as the gory olympics continue around them.

With character names like Katniss, Peeta, Cato and Seneca, it’s easy to detect “The Hunger Games” attempting to join a great tradition of fantasy epics, looking to bridge the gap opened up by the departure of a certain boy wizard last summer. Despite its gruesome central conceit the books have clearly hit a chord with teenage readers, meaning that “The Hunger Games” has every chance of becoming the next big franchise of our time. That doesn’t prevent this opening chapter from committing several notable errors, namely in the realms of plot structure and pacing, the picture a sprawled out and hugely overcooked affair. Ross lets the thing ramble on for a hefty 142 minutes, only occasionally giving audiences something to get amped about. Whilst there’s very little blood on display the film does offer up a refreshingly visceral edge, Ross using scream laden sound design and chaotic cuts to help sell the ferocity of the action. It’s messy and scrappy but also oddly apt, the springy camera movements and reliance on tight close-ups helping to place audience members at the centre of the carnage. It’s both a clever and effective way of rendering the picture edgy but also appropriate for younger patrons, ensuring that the story still packs some nastiness whilst also retaining its unquestionable financial value.

The screenplay is weak, too much time squandered on the set-up and secondary characters, resulting in a baggy and tedious journey to the actual games. Katniss is the only professionally formed entity in the picture and much of that is attributed to Lawrence’s excellent performance, easily the movie’s greatest asset. The former Oscar nominee combines genuine athleticism and a steely vulnerability, convincing as a morally sound but potentially deadly competitor. She’s the only reason the picture ever actually works, the film’s singular instance of genuine tension arising from a situation in which she attempts to escape a trap by using some deadly insects. Hutcherson is fine, but never totally sells his romantic affections for Lawrence, that facet of the tale wrapped up unconvincingly. Otherwise it’s a case of capable thespians trapped in one dimensional parts, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland just a few of the big players overlooked here. “The Hunger Games” feebly attempts to flesh these personalities out, but never succeeds; a misjudged beefing up of the runtime the only tangible result. The costumes and make-up choices several of the adult actors have to tolerate are also unfortunate, their contributions handicapped (particularly in the case of an unrecognisable Banks) by the campy and overly flamboyant wardrobe selections made for them.

The film splits itself almost completely in half, using the first 50% for backstory and training montages, the second portion to detail the vicious games themselves. The latter is definitely the more engrossing segment, Ross getting up close and personal with proceedings, envisioning a believable and visually dense environment for his protagonists to duke it out in. However even in the heat of battle “The Hunger Games” suffers some editorial fatigue, Ross can’t help but throw too many subsidiary enemies and potential allies into the plot, letting several sequences of aimless hiking run on for much too long. As a whole “The Hunger Games” should be at least 25 minutes shorter than it is, a more clinical and considerably less precious edit required to morph this behemoth into the slick actioner it often strives to be.

The musical score is unmemorable and the film’s attempts at social commentary half-hearted, Ross only ever referencing the idea of inequality between the districts through garish costumes and brief, largely unexplored exchanges of dialogue. “The Hunger Games” isn’t a complete waste of time, but it is underwhelming, my frustration only compounded because amidst the missteps the movie actually does some small things quite well. If further sequels are to be made, retaining Lawrence should be key, but drafting in a new selection of writers and a keener director (or at least forcing Ross to show more control in the edit) would be advisable. “The Hunger Games” may deliver everything fans want, but for the uninitiated it’s not a particularly involving experience.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

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