This post is the unedited and updated version of the review published at Dawn.com (publication date: 11th April 2012). Dawn.com link is at the end of the post.
Bred in Deadly Peril. The Children of the Future Have it Worse.
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
Forget the internet. A century from now, TV is still the rage. 24 younglings from segregated districts in the autocratic nation of Panem (once North America) confront each other to the death on live television.
This is the future. And today, it is perfect fodder for box-office gold.
Flagged, especially in its second-half, with a creeping sense of lethal peril “The Hunger Games” is the first of four films from author Suzanne Collins trilogy (which I believe to be a rule for successful novel adaptations nowadays), about deadly, underage mortal combat. The spectacle is televised live for an audience whose formal dress-code would give Willy Wonka a serious case of the willies. Really.
The only thing more horrifying than death-dealing children is the fashion of the future. If nothing else, Armageddon has brought down the elites fashion sense; along with their sanity.
The combination is strikingly visual and heartlessly shrewd. The screenplay (also written by Collins with director Gary Ross), paints the residents of the Capitol (the dominant state) in weird pastel/bubblegum-colored wigs, white-washed (powdered) make-up, fluffily designed costumes and toffee-nosed devil-may-care attitudes. Their look, though despicable (and bonkers), offsets their minimalistic (and a tad anti-septic) looking architecture.
Then again, cinema has been unjustly unkind to future totalitarian societies – almost all of them have some sort of discriminatory mindset reflecting their equally bizarre clothing and cityscape. George Lucas’ “THX 1138” (1971), had its populace wearing loose white pajamas and be controlled by mandatory mind-nulling drugs. Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985) made people wear three-piece suits and office them in claustrophobic quarters. A variation (without the closed quarters) and grayer weather happened in “V for Vendetta” (2006). Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) had tech-noire atmosphere with soggy weather, blocky towering buildings – later to be stapled as a definitive cyberpunk (the setting, though dystopian, was not totalitarian – unless one sees it from the point of view of the replicants).
The future in the “Games” comes complete with Donald Sutherland as the despotic, soft-spoken president (expect a lot of draggy dialogue delivery) and Wes Bentley, doing the Ed Harris bit from “The Truman Show”, as the producer/designer of the televised games.
There’s enough subdued satire, and lingering emotion, for the astute viewer to grapple until the chopping starts.
We’re introduced to Katniss Everdeen – Jennifer Lawrence, with a constant look of dread on her – in the film’s first frames. In another of those screen ironies, Lawrence’s Katniss – and the overall texture of District 12 – shares kinship with the setup in “Winters Bone”, the movie that got Lawrence an Oscar nod for Best Actress. As a resident of District 12, a desolate military cordoned area that was once Appalachia, she lives with her mother and sister in a state of near-starvation.
Katniss slips into the restricted forest area, takes out home-made bow and arrows secreted inside a tree and tracks down a deer (Bambi’s mother?). Here we meet Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a smart-looking potential love-interest. But before we can explore this aspect a large heli-carrier sweeps over the forest.
It is time for the ‘Hunger Games’ – an annual event that pits a teenaged boy and a girl from each district in a survivalist game in a wilderness arena outside the Capitol. The Games, now in their 74th year, are designed to be a type of psychological hammering against future revolts (they originated when the districts rebelled once upon a time).
To be fair to the oppressed (the prevailing society is not made of savages), the participants (or tributes as they’re called) are picked by lottery. Primrose, Katniss’ younger sister, is called out by the government’s rep and the children’s to-be hostess, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, in a role usually dressed for Helena Bonham Carter). Katniss, better prepared in the wild, volunteers in place.
Soon she, and the other pick, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are whisked off to the Capitol to train for the games. Their tutor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, in a bad, scruffy wig), is a past ‘Games’ champ. They also get a personal costume designer, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz); perhaps the only other ‘normal’, sensible guy in the city.
Haymitch is a drunk who may not have overcome his victory, but he gives one of the best advices in the movie: Nab the sponsor’s attention as soon as possible; their support may help them live.
Quartered in a classy apartment. Outfitted with big brassy clothes that burst out flames. Riding in chariots. Once introduced to the city, Katniss, Peeta and the other ‘tributes’ are instant celebrities; Like sacred animals, days before slaughter.
Often, we see them interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), a presenter of the games (with Toby Jones), who smiles like the devil incarnate (very few things look as evil as Mr. Tucci and his hair).
The ‘Games’, when they happen, makes ‘brutal’ a lesser word. The sight of children hacking and slashing each other is grisly and repugnant, and Ross shoots it with all the shoulder-mounted shakiness he can muster (the film’s cinematography is by the brilliant Tom Stern).
“The Hunger Games” chugs forward with a hassle-free pace. For a bulk of its 142 minute running time, we are familiarized with Katniss’ fear of lingering death; and Lawrence, who seldom smiles in the movie, turns in an inspired performance complete with a bulk-load of worried expressions to shoot on command.
It may not win Lawrence an Oscar nod again, but her stark magnetism, and the overall craftiness of Ross’s perception of the novel, raises the film from the dangerous pit-falls of the movies’ always-hovering ‘filmy’ attitude. It may originate from young adult lit, but “The Hunger Games” is leagues away from the “Twilight Saga”. At the very least, it feels real enough.
Released by Lionsgate and Tehelka, “The Hunger Games” is rated PG-13. Children die terrible deaths for adult entertainment.
Dawn.com link: http://dawn.com/2012/04/11/movie-review-the-hunger-games/