Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games / ***½ (PG-13)

Katniss Everdeen: Jennifer Lawrence
Peeta Mellark: Josh Hutcherson
Haymitch Abernathy: Woody Harrelson
Effie Trinket: Elizabeth Banks
Seneca Crane: Wes Bentley
Caesar Flickerman: Stanley Tucci
President Snow: Donald Sutherland
Cinna: Lenny Kravitz
Gale Hawthorne: Liam Hemsworth
Rue: Amandla Stenberg
Cato: Alexander Ludwig
Clove: Isabella Fuhrman
Claudius Templesmith: Toby Jones

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Gary Ross. Written by Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray. Based on the novel by Collins. Running time: 142 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense violence, thematic material, and disturbing images – all involving teens).

You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you're on the street,/ You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed. /And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight, /You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.
                                                                                                —Pink Floyd “Dogs”.

What makes “The Hunger Games” work is that—like all great science fiction—it raises many questions about the world we inhabit through its own imagined future world. What really separates the classes in our world? Who pulls the strings and why? Where does our morality lie and is how we get to it worth it? Are we dogs or are we sheep? How long will the human spirit stand for what is wrong? Is it harder to stand for what is right? These are merely some of the questions lying at the heart of this movie that is absolutely bursting with queries about how our society develops from one place to another.

As with many science fictions, “The Hunger Games” takes place in the not too distant future, after a devastating civil war. The exact nature of the war is never explored, however, out of it came The Hunger Games. These games require each of the nation’s 12 districts to offer up two tributaries, a girl and a boy between the ages of 12 and 18, to enter into a hunt to the death with each other. Only one survivor will be crowned the victor. The entire country watches the event on television.

This is hardly an original sci-fi concept—the idea of people hunting people for sport and the entertainment of others—but rarely has this concept been conceived with such clear notions of its own purposes and such depth within its own mythology. The pomp and circumstance of the ceremony has much to say about our pop-culture obsessed, 24-hour news cycle society, where even our politics are decided not by any concrete beliefs, but by money and the power of salesmanship.

We meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”), a girl from District 12, a poor mining district that has only once won the games. She is a survivor, who sneaks out of the district to hunt animals for food and trade. For many in the poorer districts the only options are trade or starvation as the more a family spends, the more entries their children must make in the lotteries where the game contestants are chosen. This makes me wonder how the process works in the richer districts, which could make for another interesting story. For some reason, these types of stories always seem to be told from the poorer perspective.

During the lottery, it is Katniss’ younger and less able sister whose name is chosen. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place, an unprecedented gesture. The boy chosen from her district is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “The Kids are All Right”), who can play the charm game to gain supporters, but doesn’t have Katniss’ survival skills.

Former District 12 winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, “Zombieland”) is supposed to mentor the tributes from his district. He seems embittered by his experiences, but comes around to giving the kids good advice about every aspect of the process. They give him—as they do for the citizens watching at home—hope that the master machine can be foiled. Despite the fact that the richer district’s contestants receive lethal training from an early age, Katniss is ranked very high to win. This doesn’t sit well with the powers that be. The games’ producer, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, “Jonah Hex”), is happy with the raised level of excitement she brings to the games; but the real puppet master, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, “The Pillars of the Earth”), fears that too much hope might make for unrest among the masses.

The filmmakers make the right choice to focus primarily on Katniss and Peeta in terms of character and plot development. We get glimpses of what goes on behind the scenes, but we never stray too far from the main storyline. Instead of developing the supporting roles, director Gary Ross relies on solid casting choices to flesh out the background characters. Elizabeth Banks (“The Next Three Days”) in particular suggests many inner layers to Effie Trinket, although her primary function is to run the District 12 lottery and shuffle the contestants to their proper places. Stanley Tucci (“The Devil Wears Prada”) likewise is an inspired choice to play the huckster host of the games, Ceasar Flickerman.

Ross seems to shine when he dabbles in the realm of the socio-political. His screenplay for the movie “Dave” and his directorial debut “Pleasantville” both cleverly skewered the political establishment through their seductively entertaining social comedy. With “The Hunger Games”, Ross shifts into the even more popular action and sci-fi genres without losing the teeth of his political and social criticism.

The movie is far from perfect, however. There are elements that must’ve played important roles in the novel that are not fully developed on screen. Much is made about the need for contestants to sell their personalities to “sponsors”, people who will help them with gifts throughout the games. Yet during the games, Haymitch seems to be the only sponsor to help anyone, Katniss being the sole beneficiary of sponsorship. Also, there is the ranking ceremony where the contestants must make an impression on the games committee to be ranked. These ranks are never used to affect the games in any way, and therefore seem an extraneous detail used only to create false tension. Finally, we learn next to nothing about any of the other contestants. Certainly, developing the other kids involved in the hunt could’ve added to the tension of the games and deepened the story’s social commentary.

Oddly, I was haunted by the music of Pink Floyd during the week leading up to the release of this movie. Specifically, I was drawn to their 1977 album “Animals”, which criticizes the business of the music industry through allegory. Thematically, this album and “The Hunger Games” share similar tones. After seeing this first movie in a planned trilogy, I wonder whether they will also reach the same conclusions about our world. “Animals” is decidedly dark, suggesting that the meek who rise up against the evil powers that be will merely replace sins of some with the sins of others. “The Hunger Games” seems to hold more confidence in hope than that. I suppose we’ll see.

Bleating and babbling I fell on his neck with a scream./ Wave upon wave of demented avengers/ March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream.

Have you heard the news?/ The dogs are dead!/ You better stay home/ And do as you're told./ Get out of the road if you want to grow old.                                                                                               
—Pink Floyd “Sheep”.

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