The Hunger Games (2012) 

The World Will Be Watching

In the current cinematic era of re-makes, sequels and superhero pictures it’s understandable how an original concept like The Hunger Games caught the attention of countless movie-goers and post-Potter enthusiasts who created an unnecessary hysteria upon the film’s initial release. Adapted from Suzanne Collins’ teen-friendly trilogy, it’s clear that The Hunger Games is set to follow in the successful footsteps of the far superior Harry Potter saga. This moderately engaging first film from the series plays out like a ‘user-friendly’ version of the brutally powerful Japanese film Battle Royale (2000), as both effectively share the same concept, themes and narrative.

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future remnant of the United States, now a totalitarian regime run by the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who keeps the citizenry under the thumb of an oppressive government that desires to terrify and control its people. The country, known as Panem, has been split into twelve Districts and the rich Capital, with the lower numbered Districts being closer to the Capital in terms of wealth and privilege while the higher numbered Districts wallow in poverty and starvation. The picture centres on 16-year old hunter and skilled archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) a resident in District 12, the lowest of all the Districts.

'What did I sign up for?'
‘What did I sign up for?’

While it’s not quite evident in the film, but apparently there was once a District 13, who rebelled against the Capital but were brutally crushed. Now as punishment for their upheaval and a reminder of the Capital’s power, the remaining twelve Districts must annually compete in The Hunger Games, a televised life-or-death competition in the vein of Survivor hosted by the wacky Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) who delights in interviewing the soon-to-be victims. The Capitol randomly selects a male and female participant aged between 12 to 18 years old from each of the twelve outlying Districts to compete in the games where the youth fight one other and the wilderness in a battle to the death.

When Katniss’ younger sister Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s representative for the 74th Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss and her partner from District 12, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), later head to the Capitol where they meet Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) the only other winner from their District, who acts as a mentor for the kids in their brief training regime; here he decides to sell them off as ‘star crossed lovers’ in order to win the pair more popularity and more sponsors for the competition which could ultimately end up saving their lives.

For anyone not familiar with the books, the background behind the games and this world is somewhat difficult to understand, as things aren’t explained as clearly as one might hope. Instead of a coherent backstory, we are given glancing statements about the past, leaving viewers to peace things together as the film progresses. Another qualm with the film lies in it’s protagonist Katniss Everdeen, as those who come to the picture without an already established love for the character from the novels are not likely to fall in love with Katniss or Peeta Mellark as their characters are barley fleshed out, as is their unconvincing relationship.

'Someday ladies and gentlemen, this girl will win an Oscar.'
‘Someday ladies and gentlemen, this girl will win an Oscar.’

The Hunger Games begins well with the ominous mood in District 12 feeling authentic and genuine, as those who live there are exhausted and worn out, while the Capitol in contrast is frightening in it’s frenetic artificiality and this juxtaposition works extremely well. Most of the film’s best moments occur in the feature’s first half where those in the wealthy Capitol have so little in common with the destitute people from the Districts that they actually celebrate their grief and pass it off as entertainment. However, the film loses steam once the tributes entre the arena, as there is little to no tension or sense of urgency during the actual competition. The tributes make all kinds of noises as they slowly trample through the woods and appear almost oblivious to the fact that they are being hunted, while the countless scenes in the control room serve little to no use story wise. The kills are bloodless in every sense of the word as the tributes are little more than walking stereotypes whose deaths have no impact on viewers. Emotional scenes fall flat as the film generally lacks in character development, predominantly illustrated in a scene where a young tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg) dies in the woods; according to the grapevine this was a powerful scene in the novel yet is nothing but side note here.

Director Gary Ross, Seabiscuit (2003), relentlessly uses ‘shaky cam’ throughout the picture as if he’s trying to create a found footage project; this might be due to producer’s wishes to keep the film at a PG-13 rating thus hiding the violence, although it doesn’t explain the juddering camera all the way through the film’s first hour or so, before any of the action really begins. Nonetheless The Hunger Games is well crafted as a whole, predominantly the Capitol with it’s large structures and circus-like citizens, complete with colourful hair and strange make-up resembling clowns opposed to actual people; the world of Panem is a wonder to behold. It’s just a shame the woodsy arena is rather bland in comparison to the spectacles we are made witness to earlier on.

'What time is lunch break?'
‘What time is lunch break?’

The cast are a mixed bag with Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), making an adequate Katniss Everdeen in her first headlining role, although her co-star Josh Hutcherson, Bridge to Terabithia (2007), feels awkward and wooden as District 12’s male tribute Peeta Mellark. Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2 (2012), is credible as Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’ love interest back at District 12 who completes the mandatory love triangle these films generally like to employ. Elizabeth Banks, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), gives an excellent portrayal of District 12’s escort, the absurd Effie Trinket and Stanley Tucci, The Terminal (2004), is great as Caesar Flickerman, the host of The Hunger Games. While I’m not particularly sure how he was depicted in the books, but Woody Harrelson, Zombieland (2009), is passable as the self-destructive drunk Haymitch Abernathy, the only living Hunger Games victor from District 12, and Wes Bentley’s, American Beauty (1999), incredible beard is the only remarkable thing about his bland character.

The Hunger Games had a lot of potential, but ultimately falls short in many regards. While it’s quite engaging for the most part, the film could have been so much more had its second act lived up to the tense build up in the first hour. With the next installment of the saga just around the corner, let’s hope filmmakers focus on deeper character development and a tighter script this time around as there’s still hope for the series yet.

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Hunger Games is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia