Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

Let me start by saying that I didn’t read Suzanne Collins' books; I wasn’t one of the people in the cinema who cheered when they showed a teaser for the next Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2; and I wasn’t one of the few who openly sobbed when one of the more likeable characters in the film died.  So now that I have identified myself as a male over the age of eighteen – and thus provided a context for this review – I can tell you that The Hunger Games was not a bad movie.  It just wasn’t an evenly balanced one.

As twenty-four million of you already know (per circulation numbers for the novels), The Hunger Games is about an annual battle royale to the death involving twenty-four teens in a semi-post apocalyptic country.  The goal of this annual ritual/television show is to hold back the masses from outright rebellion.   My understanding is that the novels skew towards the young adult market while the movie aspires to reach a broader audience.

Why I say the film is unbalanced is because there is two distinct feels to the movie - the setup to the games and then the games themselves.  To me the first half of the movie (the set up) stands out as the more interesting half.  It centers on Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, her relationships in District 12, and the dynamic she develops with the team assigned to prepare her and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta for the games.  This half of the movie focuses on character development and also happens to feature polished performances delivered by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz.  The trio helps Jennifer Lawrence establish Katniss as a girl who is strong and smart enough to survive the demands of the games, but at the same time has that quality of vulnerability that makes her the underdog. 

In sharp contrast, the second half of the movie – specifically the actual games – falls short of my expectations.  The action sequences are sparse; the performances of Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, and Leven Rambin as fellow tributes fall short of the standard set earlier in the film; and the competition is shockingly tame and sterile.  The set up frames the games as utter brutality in harsh conditions, with skilled killers from the top districts.  However, the scenes play out like a glorified Search and Rescue club out for a R-rated game of Capture the Flag.

As a stand-alone film, I think it was entertaining, but perhaps not deserving of all the hype.  Having talked to people who are familiar with the book and learned of some of the nuances missing from the film, it is clear that some of the motivations and machinations – as well as the perplexing love triangle that may or may not really exist – could have been fleshed out more.  In a lot of ways, it feels like director Gary Ross made choices with his direction that take for granted that many viewers have read the book.

Whether you have read the book or not, I would recommend The Hunger Games.  The film has a good premise and a good cast (including Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, and Donald Sutherland) to match.  I don’t think you will walk away salivating for the next installment the way one did after The Empire Strikes Back, but it may compel you to pick up the second novel in the series.

Standout Performance:  Woody Harrelson.  There was undoubtedly more to the character than what makes it onto the screen, but Harrelson does a nice job with the role. 


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