“The Hunger Games” (2012)
Good science fiction films are so thin on the ground that when a new one is released it’s tempting to immediately break it down and lay bare the origin of each component part. If ever a genre was prone to demonstrate the maxim that there’s nothing new under the sun it’s sci fi. Even seemingly fresh, well made efforts like Duncan Jones’ Moon are knowingly derivative. Between them George Orwell’s 1984 and the Kubrick-Clarke collaboration 2001: A Space Odyssey cast very long shadows.
I suspect that part of the reason The Hunger Games has been so popular is cultural amnesia. Youthful audiences have flocked to it, seeing something original in a story of a futuristic, dystopian society where an underclass of workers is kept in check by a ‘bread and circuses’ type spectacle in which teenagers have to battle each other to the death. If the fictional world can be traced back at least as far as Metropolis, it’s primarily Orwellian. The games idea is a blatant rip off of the more recent Japanese black comedy Battle Royale but antecedents are also to be found in the 1970s version of Rollerball, in the old Arnie Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man - a bad adaptation of a Stephen King novel - and in an excellent satire on reality television from just over a decade ago, Series 7.
Where The Hunger Games differs from even The Running Man is in its lack of political themes or desire to draw parallels between its post-apocalyptic universe and today’s culture. It’s not that there aren’t allegorical opportunities aplenty. Co-scenarist and director Gary Ross is rather content to engage issues on the surface, delivering a mild if satisfyingly paced action film which manages to sustain interest just enough to distract from all manner of plot loopholes, narrative flaws and annoying, extraneous scenes.
The biggest problem is that we never get a sense of what role the games themselves play in the wider society. Neither its rules nor its status as television spectacle are ever made clear. Do the games provide the raw material for a Truman Show like programme broadcast live and without delay and if so would not an audience which is encouraged to both bet on and sponsor competitors become frustrated at how clearly rigged and contrived the whole thing is?
Jennifer Lawrence makes for a refreshingly pretty, understated leading lady. Her beauty is as natural as her acting style though the uncharitable would perhaps note that the role of Katniss Everdeen - a hardy young huntress forced to assume parental care of a sibling after her mother’s mental collapse - is a carbon copy of the Winter’s Bone part that put her on the cinematic map. Lawrence shows up her teenage male co-stars but is well complemented by a showy supporting cast of veterans, all but Woody Harrelson in full blown ham mode. It’s a toss up who overacts more: Stanley Tucci as a wig-sporting dandy of a tv presenter, Wes Bentley as a ridiculously bearded game overseer or Donald Sutherland as a mannered, sinister president.
While the action scenes work well enough, with Ross finding an acceptable balance between tension and gore, there are lost opportunities in the characterisation of Katniss’ fellow competitors. The motivations, strategies and alliances of those who seek to take her life remain largely a mystery as Ross prefers surprise to suspense. Even the part of Peeta Mellark, Kat’s perhaps love interest, is underwritten and unnecessarily ambiguous with much of the character’s actions illogical.
Considering its cast of nubile teenagers it’s remarkable how lacking in sensuality the film is. Hollywood’s enthusiasm for violence over sex is taken to ridiculous lengths as adolescents slay each other without a second thought but dare not express any physical affection. You might have thought that in a contest where every weapon at one’s disposal needs to be harnessed players of the fairer sex would start behaving like femme fatales whilst males would likely indulge base instincts.
Judging by its open ending the makers of The Hunger Games expected its box office success. There’s more than just room for a sequel, there’s a narrative need, but I for one have lost my appetite.
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