Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Movie Review - 'The Hunger Games'

I need not emphasize that The Hunger Games is a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time. I've read all the books, the film kicked off the Constellation of Cinematic Anticipation and it was my 11th most anticipated movie of 2012 (coming in between The Gangster Squad and Stoker). This was before seeing the rave reviews it has been getting since its recent release in the US, the 4 weeks at the top of the US Box Office and the (almost) $500 million world wide box office takings so far. Well, I finally got to see a pre-screening of The Hunger Games yesterday. Hit the jump to see if I am satisfied or not.

Yes, I'm satisfied. But before going there, it's important to set the scene. The Hunger Games is, in a nutshell, what people hoped would be the new Twilight / Harry Potter series. If the success of the first film is anything to go by, it has succeeded in that purpose. The HG subject matter is, however, darker and far more relevant than its vampiric and sorcerous rivals. The story is set in a dystopian future which, although based on a crazy premise, is not too distant from what we know human beings to be capable of even today. The premise is this: every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the evil Capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. A twisted punishment for a past uprising and an ongoing government intimidation tactic, The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event in which "Tributes" must fight with one another until one survivor remains. That is pretty dark Battle Royale type material right there. Map that onto universal themes of teen angst, add a Twilight style love triangle (toned down I might add), and you have a young adult monster hit on your hands! The picture above, which I chose deliberately (it's a picture of the HG cast from Vanity Fair) should provide sufficient explanation of the strange and ironic contrast offered by this story - gorgeous and golden Abercrombie models brutally slaughtering one another in an arena, watched by millions, live.

The strength of The Hunger Games film lies in the fact that the producers clearly decided to go the Harry Potter route rather than the Twilight route. It's like, with Twilight, they knew that no matter what crap they chucked together, there would be a lot of money made. The HG may not be seen as such an easy sell, so they involved some serious talent in order to at least try make a good movie. For one, Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) was brought on as director. He may not be all that prolific or a household name, but he is a skilled filmmaker. Second, Suzanne Collins (author of the books) wrote the screenplay with Ross. Not some Hollywood hack screenwriter. Third, they cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen - the story's heroine. Lawrence is one of the finest young actresses out there, and after her Oscar nominated turn in Winter's Bone, you know she has the fire required to portray Katniss. Fourth, the remaining casting choices appear to have been very carefully considered. Included are Josh Hutcherson (Peeta), Liam Hemsworth (Gale), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman) and Donald Sutherland (President Snow). 

The fifth reason took me by surprise, and that was the tone of the film. It was curiously understated, even gritty, making generous use of hand held camerawork (maybe even a bit too much), avoiding the dodgy CGI (even the dreaded "Muttations" were subtly done), and minimizing the use of music. The violence was toned down too, with much of it occurring in relative silence, allowing the nature of the atrocities on screen to generate emotional impact, instead of music, stunts and visual effects. Those things create spectacle, but that is not what Ross and his team were aiming to do. The result? Something pretty different to what you may expect, and although I found myself yearning for a bit more Hollywood here and there, I think that the dominant feeling at the end was one of relief - that they actually managed to make a good movie out of all this.

Finally, I can't end this review without noting the strange retro style of The Hunger Games. I'm not sure if it sprouts from Collins' writing, but the film had distinct 1960s - 1980s visual elements in it. The outfits of the Capitol's inhabitants, the Orwellian Peacekeepers' uniforms, Peeta's power suit (you'll know it when you see it), the Hair! Yes, the Capitol is intended to depict the decadence typically exhibited by civilizations on the brink of collapse, but were we really that close in the 80's? I don't know, but somehow it all works so nicely. It is a bit of an old school sci-fi tale, and it looks good in its old school sci-fi wares. 

I'm going to see The Hunger Games again on Friday, so maybe then I will be able to form some more impressions. For now though, I am happy that they didn't stuff it up, and cannot wait for things to get moving on Catching Fire, the second instalment in the trilogy. With that, I say adieu to The Hunger Games in the Constellation of Cinematic Anticipation.

8 out of 10

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