Okay, I admit it. I kinda liked THE HUNGER GAMES. I was real turned off by all the pre-release hoopla, the reporting of every miniscule detail of casting and filming, for a movie from an only okay director (sorry, Pleasantvillamaniacs) based on a book written for kids and too recent for any of the reporters to have grown up on it and have a personal connection to it. It seemed pretty transparent to me that publicists had convinced everybody that this was gonna be the next TWILIGHT, and they were running scared trying to learn the lingo and the character names to show they knew all about this. Hey man I’ll suck your dick for a hit.
Okay that last sentence was harsh but I wrote it down in my notebook and it’s too late to back out now, it’s part of the historical record. I still feel that way but also I gotta admit I was wrong when I predicted nobody would like the movie that much and it would be quickly forgotten. Then they hired a director I kinda like (I AM LEGEND’s Francis Lawrence) for parts 2-3 so I figured it was time to shut up and listen to all the cool uncles of the internet and try this out. Also I was kind of into Jennifer Lawrence after SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Sorry. But I watched it with an open-minded and I mostly enjoyed it.
In case any of you are holdouts like I was I’ll explain what it’s about. Academy Award winner Jennifer “Li’l Mystique” Lawrence stars as a young girl (I’m not gonna say her name yet) in a depressing future where there’s apparently no manufactured food so she has to bowhunt for birds and shit to feed her mom and little sister. It’s actually not as bad as the place she lived at in WINTER’S BONE (in fact she kills and eats a squirrel in both movies, she’s gonna get typecast), except that the government comes around once a year to draft two “tributes” to go fight to the death in televised only-one-survives outdoor gladiatorial combat, and that’s kinda shitty in my opinion.
I know everybody points out the similarities to BATTLE ROYALE, but it was the different context that warmed me up to the movie. Here it’s not just brutal exploitation of bloodlust, it’s the government’s way of terrorizing the people into staying in line. It’s justified as punishment for an uprising that happened 75 years ago, agreed to in a treaty back then. They paint it as patriotic, with triumphant theme music. The DEATH RACE broadcasts are like wrestling, this is more mainstream, Olympics meets American Idol.
Stanley Tucci is a TV host who interviews them, pretends to be moved by their stories, treats them like people chasing a dream when they’re really victims of a tyrannical government about to be publicly executed. But in an inspiring way, you know?
The ruling class who run the games are completely clueless to the plight of the victims, repeatedly wishing them “Happy Hunger Games!”, calling it a “pageant,” etc. They have no fucking idea. Elizabeth Banks, as a ridiculously made-up woman who’s supposed to be their chaperone or sponsor or something, seems to honestly think she’s on this girl’s side, like a slavemaster who prides herself in being “good” to her slaves. Woody Harrelson, as a former player turned trainer, seems more aware, giving good advice without pretending he’s a good guy. Lenny Kravitz, her costume designer, is the only person who acknowledges that fucked up shit is going on, saying “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
Okay, you may have heard this whispered about in pop culture and what not, but Lawrence’s character is unfortunately named “Katniss Everdeen.” I know, I still feel bad for telling you guys that Will Smith’s character in AFTER EARTH was named “Cypher Raige,” now I gotta drop this one on you. They all got goofy names like that, ’cause it’s the future.
Here’s a quiz for you: HUNGER GAMES character or Spike Lee character?
1. Caesar Flickerman
2. Effie Trinket
3. Flipper Purify
4. Hob Vendor
5. Opal Gilstrap
6. Seneca Crane
7. Peeta Mellark
8. Haymitch Abernathy
9. Claudius Templesmith
10. Greer Childs
11. Magicky Oddlycakes
12. Cedar Cloud
14. Lala Bonilla
17. Indigo Downes
(ANSWERS: 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 13, 15 – Hunger Games. 1, 3, 5, 6, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17 – Spike Lee. 11 – The Hobbit or something.)
The names are kinda silly, but I had a bigger problem with the fashions of the upper class people. I know they’re trying to establish how different their lives and priorities are, so Wes Bentley (P2) has time to shave his goatee into a flame shape and Banks can put on a corset and wig like it’s the old west and more makeup than a geisha. I like the concept, but they just look so… stupid. I don’t like looking at them. Especially the commentators, Tucci and Toby Jones with their big ass wigs.
The real problem I see with it is that Katniss is a peasant who is temporarily taken in by a world of luxury, given feasts and fancy hotel rooms, treated like a celebrity, all as part of forcing her to kill or be killed. Wouldn’t it be more uncomfortable, and therefore dramatic, if this world seemed tempting? If she was kinda seduced by it? I think so. But it’s just not an appealing world when everybody’s dressed up like they’re in that Nathan Lane NUTCRACKER movie or some crap like that. No thanks. Put me out in the woods again.
But I guess “uncomfortable” is not what they’re looking for. It’s impossible to really deliver on this concept but also be appropriate for kids. I don’t necessarily think the deaths have to be more graphic (although of course I hate the camera shaking they use to avoid having to show anything R-rated-ish). I just mean that thematically they’re forced to cop out. The horror of this Hunger Games thing is not that she could die – we figure she won’t. So the horror is that she’s forced to be a killer. But Katniss barely has to face the choice of killing someone she doesn’t want to. Her adorable ally Rue (Amandla Stenberg, COLOMBIANA) (SPOILER) is killed by someone else, so is the other guy from Rue’s district, and most everybody else. She only kills a bunch of jerks that are attacking her.
I was also thrown off by the use of animals in the Games. The movie establishes a pretty grounded world, and a scene involving a wasp’s nest worked fine without the flourish of them being genetically modified hallucinogenic wasps. Worse, the pack of vicious cat-dogs which, if I understand correctly, they created on a computer? I didn’t get how that worked.
But Katniss is a good heroine, the kind of blunt, no-time-for-bullshit character Lawrence excels at. She gets some excellent badass moments, like when she gets the elites’ attention by shooting an arrow through the apple on their roast pig, and when she taunts a gang of armed killers while they have her trapped in a tree. And the opening had me hooked with Banks painfully drawing out the drawing of the name like it’s the lottery, and the way the cameras communicate Katniss and her sister’s shock and disorientation as their names come up.
It’s got problems but it’s pretty good. Good enough to watch part 2, anyway.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.