Review: 'The Hunger Games' is Fine Sci-Fi That Could've Been Better
by Jeremy Kirk
March 23, 2012
The "it could have been better" argument works for and against the film begin discussed. On one hand, the film, the case here being The Hunger Games, works to a certain point, but, on the other hand, you can't help but wonder what more could have been pulled from the material. We're not asking for a three-hour adaptation of Suzanne Collins' first of three novels. However, the two-and-a-half-hour version we do get doesn't use the time it has to the best of its potential. Once the titular Game kicks in, the possibilities of its first act slip into routine, survival action. It's never boring or tedious, but something important is missing.
As with Collins' novel - the author co-wrote the screenplay here along with Billy Ray and director Gary Ross - The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic society where civil war has led to a dictatorship ruling over 12 districts. Every year, the people of these districts send one boy and one girl, aged between 12 and 18, to partake in The Hunger Games. Acting as tribute for the districts' uprising that resulted in the war, these 12 boys and 12 girls fight in a vast arena, weapons strewn throughout the field for their use, until one remains alive. The Games are televised to the nation, public executions acted on descendants of age-old treason that serve as control over another possible rebellion.
At the center of this story is Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, the girl from District 12 who volunteers herself after her beloved 12-year-old sister Prim is selected. Katniss and Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson, travel from their home to the arena in hopes of fame, status, and, most importantly, their own survival.
Ross' film does a fine job building the characters - those outside of the competition, anyway - the setting, and the Games themselves in the first half. The 24 teenagers don't enter the arena until somewhere on the outside of the halfway mark. The training, pageantry, and social appearance provide a focus to what really goes on behind the scenes here, and all of it is endlessly fascinating. So, too, are the cast of characters the kids come in contact with before they're forced to fight for their lives. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, a past winner of the Games, mentor to the new kids from District 12, and fan of the drink; Elizabeth Banks as the Kabuki, ball gown-wearing escort, Effie Trinket; and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the host to the TV audience who's all capped teeth and hyperbole. All colorful characters backed by glowing performances.
But, as interesting as those characters are, there isn't enough time given to the other 22 "Tributes" Katniss and Peeta will be fighting against. In the time we spend leading up to the Games, we learn the names of only a few of these other kids. Faces become familiar here and there, and it becomes easier to define someone by what District they represent, but fully fleshed out characters aren't of interest. Collins, Ray, and Ross, instead, seem more interested in the film's leads and the authoritarian faces behind the competition and the Capitol's control over its people. That's enough for a time. The timeliness with which this level of 1-versus-99 comes up couldn't be more palpable, and, for roughly 90 minutes, Hunger Games transcends its B-movie, sci-fi premise.
Then the Games begin. Much appreciation has to go Ross' way for the way he handles the violence in The Hunger Games, that of kids killing kids in brutal manners. It's something that could have easily been in-your-face graphic, an R-rated actioner that pushes the boundaries of that, particular rating. But The Hunger Games, based on a very successful novel, is being looked at as a franchise starter, something that requires a PG-13 these days. Ross handles that superbly, as well. His camera never noticeably shies away from violence. We see blood spurting and the sound design is spot-on discomforting, but it rides a nice balance of accessibility without compromising the reality of it all.
As harsh as the violence is in The Hunger Games, it would have been more meaningful, more deeply felt beyond the shock of seeing teenagers murdered for sport, if we knew any of these characters. The faults of the movie's first half come into play in the back end. Without a context to who these children are and with Ross' shaky camera skills working overtime, the actual Games part of The Hunger Games quickly dilutes to a blase product. Much of it is dark. Some of it is filled with poorly executed, CG creatures. The film gets messy as a whole, and, though beats of a rebellion rise up now and again, nothing ever feels complete.
Nothing, that is, save for Jennifer Lawrence. You don't care that she's playing another downtrodden teenager who is caring for her family in a violent and rustic world. That's only a small part to Katniss' story, anyway. Lawrence was a powerhouse in Winter's Bone, and she remains equally as steadfast, stoic, and stalwart in this role. Her expressions generate a pleasantness even when she's hunting, evading attacks, and outright fighting hand-to-hand, her moods always reflecting even she isn't saying anything. Lawrence is quickly filling a spot among the greatest, up-and-coming actors, and her performance in Hunger Games simply refreshes that opinion.
But outside of its fine, lead actress, The Hunger Games never quite hits the peaks it sets out to hit. It's on the right path for much of the running time, and, for that first half, you'll even wonder if its an adaptation that couldn't have been done better. You'd be right about that first half. Unfortunately, the real meat of the film comes late in the game, and, by then, you just want to experience more of this world. The Hunger Games is fine sci-fi with very discernible connections between their world and ours. Having said that, the story could act as a warning for where we might be headed. If that's the case, at least we'll be more familiarized by the participants once the real Hunger Games come around.
Jeremy's Rating: 6.5 out of 10