Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

A better-than-average action film thanks to a strong lead, suspenseful pacing, and unsettling themes.

I disliked Suzanne Collins’s novel, “The Hunger Games.” I found the plot predictable, the characters paper-thin and the writing style simply terrible. I was ambivalent towards the protagonists and could care less about the outcome. But the film was a different story. The plot, while still predictable, translated incredibly well to screen. The characters were rich, giving me heroes I could root for and a conclusion I cared about.

The Hunger Games tells the story of a totalitarian government that, in order to keep its subjects in line, forces each of its districts to send a boy and a girl tribute to compete in a gladiatorial event where all will fight to the death. In District 12, Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute, taking the place of her sister. Katniss is thrust into the competition and must not only contend for her life but wrestle with feelings for her male counterpart, Peeta, and her hometown boyfriend, Gale. The film generally stays close to the original plotline but makes a few minor changes which significantly improve on the novel.

What I immediately appreciated about the film was its raw emotion. The early moments that Katniss shares with her little sister, Prim, are beautiful. My favorite scene, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games, is heartbreaking. Katniss also shares some short, yet heartfelt, moments with Hunger Games ally Rue. Jennifer Lawrence brings life to the character of Katniss, her eyes conveying depth and maturity. This is not the shallow and annoying character from the book. But other than Katniss, the characters had little development—most evidently, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta. The scene stealers were Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games emcee and Woody Harrelson as drunken mentor Haymitch.

The film raises some interesting questions involving situational ethics, murder, self defense, and rebellion against government. If Katniss is to win the games, she must kill, but should she? The film causes the audience to identify with Katniss and forces them to agonize along with the heroine as she’s forced to make these difficult decisions. Ultimately, the film gives no answers.

The shaky, handheld camerawork severely detracted from the film. Shaky cam is a cheap way to [try to] generate excitement. The constant motion was headache-inducing and made it difficult to follow the action at times. This was most evident in the climactic scene with the rabid dogs. The camera shook and jumped about so much it was difficult to follow the action on screen, causing annoyance. Instead of bolstering suspense, it diminished it.

James Newton Howard’s score stood out as painfully generic. The cues are lifeless and there’s nothing new or creative. It’s a disappointing offering from one of cinema’s greatest composers.

The violence is this film’s only cautionary element; there’s very little in the way of bad language and no sexual content. But, unlike most films, the violence is never glorified or even cathartic. Many violent films produce catharsis, for example, at the death of a villain, at the moment of perfectly executed vengeance or when a character gets what’s coming to them. This is not the case here. The participants in the Hunger Games are forced to kill, and only a small minority of participants relish this fact. The characters never revel in the killing, nor does the audience. There is no glee in these deaths, only sadness. Tribute after tribute falls to the violence, and while the fatalities are not graphic, they are haunting. The brutality of the film stuck with me for hours after the end credits.

This is the rare film that drastically improves upon its source material (although that’s not saying much). The story works much better on film, due mostly to its solid pacing and strong acting by its lead. The film has some flaws, mostly its shaky camera, a few weak performances, occasionally weak dialogue and generic score but provides two and a half hours of escapist entertainment. Happy Hunger Games, everyone.

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