Having seen young adult franchise movie-making swallow Bill Condon whole with Breaking Dawn, and witnessing the erosion of western civilization via the lens of audiences that regularly throw billions of dollars at blockbusters that have nothing but contempt for them – I was fully expecting The Hunger Games to be just another swirl in the downward spiral of populist filmmaking that we’ve all been witnessing recently.
In terms of quality, the past five years have been particularly rough on films aimed at bigger audiences. And while Gary Ross’ new film is by no means on the level of some the blockbuster classics (at least on initial viewing), it goes a long way towards restoring the fractured bond between an audience and the films it entrusts to entertain. The Hunger Games is a film you can trust. It single-handedly reminded me of an unspoken contract between artist, studio and consumer that I once naively assumed would always be in place – make the movie good. It’s a simple rule, and it’s almost never followed anymore when dealing with films in this budget range. Especially ones like this with a huge built-in, easily exploitable fan base. But The Hunger Games doesn’t exploit that fan base, it honors it. And not at the cost of the casual filmgoer.
North America no longer exists and has been broken into several large, disparate districts, some of which are favored by the Capitol over others. Poverty rules all of them, and food is scarce. The film starts out with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) going about her daily routine in District 12 (in what was once the Appalachian mountains). We learn quickly that she’s an expert hunter and cares deeply for her little sister Primrose. Her relationship with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) seems to be a chaste one, one of those things that could blossom under good circumstances that will never come. As the building blocks for a protagonist go it’s all fairly standard issue. Katniss is designed to be independent, strong, witty and have a silent, rebellious reserve. Of course these are all admirable qualities, it’s just that so many actors and directors conspire to make them so rote. Here Lawrence and director Gary Ross (working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Billy Ray and the book’s author, Suzanne Collins) fashion a real flesh and blood person, full of idiosyncrasies, and it goes a long way towards carrying the film. Lawrence has already received accolades for her work in Winter’s Bone and appeared in hits like X-Men: First Class but, if there was ever such a thing as a star making performance, her turn as Katniss is one of them.
Even though we meet Katniss as she goes about her routine, it’s not a normal day at all. It’s time for “the reaping”, an event in which the names of every child in the district between the ages of 12 and 18 are placed into a bowl (some multiple times) to be selected via drawing to appear in the annual Hunger Games. The Hunger Games have been enforced as long-term punishment for a decades old uprising amongst the twelve districts. Each year two children, a boy and a girl, from each district are selected to compete in the Games. It is then that they will brutally combat the other 23 children until there is only one survivor. Primrose’s name is the first to be drawn by the Capitol’s flamboyant spokesperson Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), prompting Katniss to volunteer in her place. From the boy side of the aisle, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is selected to represent the district.
From there we head (via high speed train) to the Capitol, where the children will train for the games. It’s a big, gleaming metropolis whose denizens are heavily awash in bright fabrics and dyes. It’s the 1% to the districts’ 99%. And while Ross certainly takes cues from other sources in building this world, it feels complete and well thought out. Visually it’s also a stark break from the washed out, desaturated look of the film’s first act. Katniss and Peeta plan their training with help from Trinket and their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) – which feels just as much like a political campaign as it does a physical preparation.
The inner details and class system of the Capitol work as the best kind of sociopolitical sci-fi, big ideas and concepts rendered simple and familiar, but not stupid. Here the film dips a bit into The Running Man’s brand of satire, but done much better (either that or our current world is simply that much closer to the one presented in the film). The games are essentially the world’s most popular reality TV show, and the the film’s effort to bridge the gap between this seemingly foreign concept and our current cultural landscape works quite well (it helps that we’re not terribly far off).
The film’s 3rd act centers on the games themselves, and it was here that I thought I would be let down. Instead, it’s the film’s high point. Launched into a giant forest arena whose environment can be controlled and manipulated by the Capitol’s Seneca (Wes Bentley), the children immediately engage in battle. It’s kind of shocking to walk into a PG13 film and find 18 year-olds hacking 12 year-olds to death with machetes, but the opening of this sequence is a bloodbath that pushes the film’s rating to its breaking point. Of course, this is no Battle Royale but the elements that Games borrows from that film are distilled for mass consumption in the best possible way given the circumstances.
But what’s truly special about this sequence is the time we spend in the arena after the initial skirmish. The games go on for weeks and this section of the film is protracted enough to be its own movie. We see the kids’ different strategies. How they stalk and kill, how they survive and the alliances they make. There are a couple of fumbled beats here, and the character of Peeta grates, but for every hamfisted moment there are 3 utterly inspiring ones. Again, this act of the film is photographed completely differently than the first two – a conceit that many films fumble, but here it enhances the epic scope of the narrative.
Ultimately The Hunger Games is almost a minor miracle. What could have been a quick and easy cash-in on an existing property is instead a carefully considered, thrilling and touching piece of populist entertainment. It’s sort of an exciting prospect that, for the first time in a long time, we’re going to have a pop culture “moment” centered around a film that actually made the effort to tell its story well (even though it’s a shame that this is now the exception to the rule). I really can’t believe I’m even saying this, but I’m looking forward to the sequel (provided Gary Ross is still onboard).
The Hunger Games is a d*mn good movie. It’s the first blockbuster in ages that actually respects its audience. Instead of feeling entitled to your money, it does its best to earn it. It’s not perfect, but it always has an assured, steady hand. Occasionally, it even soars.