The Hunger Games (2012) review
Contenders, ready! Sure, juvenile gladiators are nothing new, but as pop-cult cinema this mashes mainstream and marginal with confidence, and Jennifer Lawrence kills it.
The Hunger Games
(Gary Ross, 2012)
Kids killing kids in gladiatorial combat, designed as crowd control for an unruly society? Critics were quick to label The Hunger Games as a rip-off of Battle Royale, but it’s actually a quite different beast. The key moment is when Donald Sutherland’s cynical, obviously corrupt President points out that the titular Games aren’t about fear, but hope. Specifically, the hope that homicide can bring fame, fortune and happiness – because Suzanne Collins’ dystopia is aimed at a generation raised on the popularity contest of The X Factor and its ilk. It’s The Truman Show with a body count.
So it matters much less than it should that Gary Ross’ film downplays the violence, with choppy editing and even-blurrier-than-is-usual-for-Hollywood shakicam. Yes, it’s been done to secure the right rating for the target audience, but the visual syntax is also part of a wider design. The Capitol of this fucked-up country is a flamboyantly decadent vision of mad hair, make-up and primary coloured gowns, the most Fellini-esque science-fiction film since Flash Gordon; Ross duly holds his shots longer. Yet in the Depression-era breadline of the outlying District 12 where heroine Katniss Everdeen hails from (or the rebellious, riot-prone District 11) the camera is, if anything, even shakier, the film vibrating with the characters’ helplessness and rage.
It’s not subtle, but The Hunger Games‘ world-building is effective in creating a relatable dystopia. Collins has fashioned some intriguing, distinctive rules, where the Games are rigged by rich Districts who send their kids to slaughter boot camps from an early age and wealthy sponsors must be wined, dined and flattered to lay favour on contestants with parachuted gift parcels. Sceptics will argue (with good reason) that all of this leads to undisciplined plotting, with narrative bail-outs possible at every turn. But consider this: if currying the favour of Emperors was a Roman pastime, the deus ex machina dates back even further to the Greeks. Collins is running the classics through the mindset of a focus-grouped backed TV producer, so it’s kind of inevitable that the arena turns out to be a sylvan glade, a corrupted Eden – where a falling apple might set off a lethal explosion.
Ross’ direction is arguably too respectful to the material’s emo-kid sincerity to really hold as satire, and certainly too mainstream to show any real anger to the mass-murder on offer – too many of the Hunger Games’ contestants are anonymous fodder, which is not something you could say of the deluded, deranged and diva-esque folk on the shows that this is satirising. It’s left to the actors to really bring out the nuances in the material. Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci feast on the possibilities of Panem’s excess, Woody Harrelson ably plays the (drunken, disdainful) voice of the judge-on-the-couch, while the increasingly impressive Jennifer Lawrence holds everything together with a mix of steel, bewilderment, hurt outright contempt at what is going on. Lawrence’s eyes are so flecked with meaning that they frequently stop the film’s hyperactive style in its tracks.
And with good reason. Climbing trees, dodging fireballs or shooting arrows, Lawrence commands the screen like no action hero since Jason Bourne. In many ways, Lawrence is lazy casting – how many other actresses have proven so adept at cooking squirrels? – and, alongside The Kids Are All Right’s Josh Hutcherson, it’s a classic case of a blockbuster pilfering from the indie scene, in this case the class of 2010. Yet these are amongst the brightest hopes among young actors, and there’s a real sense of a franchise benefitting from the raised stakes of the post-Potter, post-Twilight. Pretty boys and girls will no longer do; they have to act, too. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that Ross provided Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire with breakout roles in Pleasantville; he still has a starmaker’s eye.