26 March, 2012

The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross -  Runtime: 142 mins

Review by Bill Harrington 

As I clearly live in a cultural vacuum the first time I was ever aware of The Hunger Games was when encountering the poster in a tube station several weeks ago. It looked odd, cheap and tacky. "That's going to bomb, surely." I thought. "No-one will go to see that. What on earth is it? " I continued. As I said, cultural vacuum.

Of course as I and practically everyone one else on the planet is now aware, The Hunger Games is the hugely anticipated adaptation of a series of stupendously successful books by author Suzanne Collins. It was evident from the excitement amongst the large preview crowd that this is an 'event' film on the scale of the larger of the summer blockbusters. What would become evident is that this is a film that credits its audience with a bit more intelligence then your average Michael Bay robotic eye abuser.

For the uninitiated, a quick summary. North America exists in a post-apocalypse age. A decadent and technologically advanced capital is surrounded by 12 Districts. These are populated with an impoverished and
repressed people which the capital tyrannises. For some reason which I'm still not clear about, every year a boy and a girl from each district is picked and taken to the capital to participate in The Hunger Games, a
televised battle for survival against the representatives from all other districts. The prize for the eventual winner is riches for themselves and esteem for their district. For all other entrants the game ends in death. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to represent her district in place of her younger sister, whose name is drawn in the selection lottery. The equivalent male representative is the diffident Peeta, who is prone to casting long yearning glances at Katniss. They are assigned experienced guides to prepare them for the murderous pageant they are to face - Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is a former winner who advises them on survival tactics in-between downing voluminous glasses of booze, and Cinna (a "goodness, is that Lenny Kravitz" appearance from Lenny Kravitz) tutors them on the equally important task of making an impression on the audience. After every combatant is interviewed by master of ceremonies Stanley Tucci (sporting prodigious dentures), they
are crudely thrust into the sprawling woodland landscape which serves as the battle arena, and the slaughter begins.

Recently seen as the emotionally dependent Mystique in X-Men: First Class, Jennifer Lawrence plays the resourceful Katniss. Skilled in survival and hunting techniques and opposed to the regime that plays so
callously with human lives, she is also visibly susceptible to the fame that comes with entry into the Games. The film shows a broadly satirical approach to the allure of the limelight, as even those condemned to certain death are easily cajoled into smiling and fluttering their eyelids for their audience.

The rest of the cast is a diverse bunch of character actors, new blood and old stars. Harrelson's appearance seemed to stir the knowing audience a bit, so I assumed he was a popular character, but I found his a bit of a drunk by numbers performance. Donald Sutherland was probably wondering when it would be his turn to be the distinguished star of old to be offered a blockbuster. Here he plays the taciturn and sinister President, whose lofty position probably ensures he can remain attired with some dignity. In contrast Wes Bentley is given an indescribable beard to wear, and Elizabeth Banks struck me as what Willie Scott from Temple of Doom might have turned out if she'd had several nervous breakdowns and lived in the future. Stanley Tucci parodies every false, self-regarding reality show host one can think of very effectively.

The Hunger Games is a veritable casserole of sci-fi influences, and for me this formed a great part of its appeal. It has the aesthetic of the kind of 1970s dystopian film that Charlton Heston might have been involved with. The sets are sparse. The extras come dressed like refugees from Logan's Run or Soylent Green. The Running Man would seem to be another obvious progenitor, but there are also shades of Battle Royale, John Christopher's The Tripods trilogy, Lord of the Flies, even Turkey Shoot (if anyone remembers that). I enjoyed all of those sources
and whether or not they are referenced deliberately it's good fun to see their influence.

Admittedly when the film commenced with some helpful explanatory text that left me completely baffled, I feared the worst. This, I thought, is going to be one pop phenomenon that is completely impenetrable to
non-devotees. Yet it doesn't take too long to grasp the film's concept (even if I couldn't quite grasp the rationale for the Games themselves). The story is developed at an unhurried pace, with time for some character insight, and once the Games commence the film is exciting and surprisingly gritty. Death and peril are portrayed without
glamorisation. Even young children suffer a brutal end for the entertainment of their masters. One killing, quick but brutal, made me flinch uncomfortably. There is an admirable lack of sentimentality here. Although there are several hints this series may descend into a Twilight style love triangle, this instalment's focus is the battle to survive in a merciless environment.

"The World will be watching" says the strapline on the poster. With record breaking box office figures being announced, one can decide for themselves if such marketing was clairvoyant or simply smug. I'm not convinced it is deserving of some of the gushing notices it has received but I can think of few guaranteed money making devices that have the good manners to treat both its dedicated audience and those new to it with such a healthy amount of respect.