The Hunger Games finally hits theaters this weekend as the first true Event Movie of 2012, riding a wave of hype typically reserved for the Harry Potters, Twilights and Batmans of the movie world. I find that very odd still, because prior to the movie being announced last spring, I’d never heard of these books. I don’t pay much attention to the literary world, but usually when something is this big, I’d have at least heard about it from a secondary source or a random mention online or something. Nope. Suzanne Collins‘ trilogy was completely unknown to me, but the concept sounded cool, and I was definitely interested in seeing what the hype was about on this first big screen adaptation. As such, I decided to go to a midnight show at the most popular theater in this area, which was showing the film on at least 5 screens at midnight (a common occurrence around the country, and several theaters will be showing the film around the clock this weekend).
I got into the theater at 11:20, earlier than I intended, and it was already two-thirds full. That was pretty telling. To put that into perspective, typically at this theater, the room is still half empty at 11:40, even for big summer movies. It shows you the desire people had to see this thing. Anticipation for a big franchise movie is easily measured in this sense; the earlier people buy tickets and show up at the theater to see it, the more passionate they are. I oughtta know. It was fairly clear right away that this fanbase was eager. I’d say the female/male split was at least 65/35, maybe even 70/30. It was mostly a college-aged crowd, but I noticed a lot of parents had stayed up with their preteen kids so they could come see it at midnight, which is kinda irresponsible but pretty cool if you’re one of those kids. I wonder if those parents knew the movie was 140 minutes long prior to leaving the house.
There were some cool trailers, including the newest for The Amazing Spider-Man (which looks like it has waaaaay too much CGI), the new Avengers trailer (love it), the first Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Towers trailer (which I hadn’t yet watched, because I’m bored with Burton doing the same thing with the same actors over and over again), and the much-hyped first teaser for Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part II, which was only about 30 seconds long. I was pleased to see this mostly female audience had almost no reaction to it. It looks like the Hunger Games fangirls don’t overlap much with the idiots who worship Twilight. It’s nice to know that some young women can recognize a legit strong female character (Katniss Everdeen), as opposed to that subhuman cardboard cutout Bella Swan, who is reliant upon the affections of 2 boys for her strength a reason to live. That, or everyone has now been reduced to apathy over those godforsaken movies. I think even Twilight nuts are ready for this shit to end in November. Even if they aren’t, too fuckin bad, it’s over!!! BAHAHAHA! I digress…
So yeah, because I had no history with the books or characters, there was no emotional investment going in. If it sucked, that’s just 7 bucks gone. If it was cool or even good, then I’m going into a new fantasy world completely fresh, which is an exhilarating experience, especially at the movies.
Cut to the chase, I know. What did I think? It was good, not great. I was not blown away by this new world or these characters, but I understand why people under 25 might be. In the end, these books weren’t really written for me, and I’m fine with that. Game of Thrones was written for me, and I only have to wait one more week for season 2 to get my fantasy fix. Hunger Games was good enough that I’m interested in what happens in the sequel, but not interested enough that I feel I need to go get the books and find out RIGHT NOW. If I have to wait til 2014 to find out what happens in Catching Fire, so be it. And now for the details:
WHAT I LIKED
–Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. As if there were any doubt prior to this, the girl is without doubt a movie star. She gets it. She’s in almost every frame of the film, and carries the whole thing on her back with the skill of someone twice her age. There was some controversy last year over her casting, because I guess Katniss is supposed to be a skinny 16-year old in the book, and Jennifer Lawrence is a healthy looking 21-year old. But can she pass for 18 or so? Certainly. When you’re making a movie, talent is more important than being fiercely loyal to the book’s description. And since I never read the book, I don’t care how old this character is. I bought her as an older sister and as a strong-willed daughter not quite ready to enter the real world on her own. I bought how overwhelmed she was when she’s brought to the big city, and I bought her skill with a bow and her knack for survival. That’s the stuff that matters. I’m glad she was the choice for this role, and even when this series is over, we can all look forward to years of strong performances from this gifted actress. Is Katniss a Best Actress-level role? I’m gonna say no, at least not for this movie. It’s a really strong female role (almost an oxymoron in Hollywood), and she gets to display a wide range of emotions, but it needed better writing to be a truly transcendent character, like we just saw with Rooney Mara‘s Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Again, I’m only judging that on this first film. I see a lot of potential going forward, even though I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next.
I also have to mention I love that Katniss’ main weapon skill is archery. Archery always looks awesome on the big screen. It’s just inherently cinematic for whatever reason, and that’s no different here.
O, HAI JENNIFER LAWRENCE AT THE PREMIERE!
–The Hunger Games conceit. I’m not sure this would be the most efficient way to resolve these issues in the world we’ve been introduced to here, but the gladiator-esque aspect is cool, even if it does unfairly involve children. I’m not sure why anyone would approve of 12-year olds being matched up against 18-year olds, and I think it’s kinda simplistic that nobody in the “Capitol” (great name for the capital, by the way- reeeeally clever) has any ethical problems with this. Maybe there’s more background into the culture in the books, but so far everybody in this city is basically the same; shallow, opulent, materialistic, uncaring. NOBODY in this society objects to 12-year olds being killed for sport? Come on now, Suzanne Collins.
Anywho, given the setup, I thought it was interesting how the contestants are paraded around and introduced to the masses. This whole thing with the “sponsors” is mentioned repeatedly, but we never really get an explanation as to how exactly these people arrange to have influence over the games. There was unrealized potential for interesting characters there.
I thought the initial setup of the competition was cool, where at first they’re all placed in an open field with weapons and supplies within reach, but to get them you have to fight off/kill some of your competitors right from the jump. That was nicely executed in the film, and it’s an easy narrative method to instantly trim down the number of contestants (there are 24 to start).
It’s funny…I couldn’t stop thinking about The Truman Show the more they explained aspects of this “arena”, and how it had finite boundaries and could be manipulated by the people in this godlike control room (which maybe looked a little too much like the all-white Zion control room in Matrix Reloaded). In that sense, it also reminded me of the holodeck from Star Trek: TNG. There was definitely some cool sci-fi at work, even if most of it was derivative. And while I like that the people in this control room could see where everybody was and make adjustments to the environment, I don’t like that they can also basically cheat, creating situations themselves that can kill the contestants, or at the very least put one of the contestants at a huge disadvantage against the others, as is done to Katniss several times during the movie. If these other kids are working together and have years of weapons training from their more advanced District, why do they need so much help from above? So there were pluses and minuses to the whole structure of this competition, but for the most part I enjoyed it and the buildup to it. I was also a fan of the cannon indicating when someone had been killed.
-I like that they took their time explaining things and letting the dramatic moments happen early on instead of rushing into the action sequences. Credit here to the writers (author Suzanne Collins is one of the credited screenwriters) and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville), also one of the writers, for understanding that in order for the action to mean anything, we have to care about the characters first. It’s a simple and basic storytelling concept, but most big Hollywood franchise movies are now more than happy to skip the pleasantries and get right to the explosions, because that’s what these guys think teenage boys want. The Hunger Games don’t actually start in this film until over an hour into it, and I found that to be a nice change of pace. That said, the later you start the action, the more interesting the characters and setup have to be, and I felt they were just strong enough here that I wasn’t begging for the games to begin. This buildup time makes character deaths and relationships more meaningful later on, for you idiots who want all action all the time. Get on Call of Duty if that’s what tickles your fancy. Movies are supposed to have people you actually give a shit about.
-I enjoyed being introduced to this colorful world in the Capitol. The makeup and costume design was…different, and I loved seeing Elizabeth Banks (as Effie Trinket) and Stanley Tucci (as Caesar Flickerman) ham it up. Also, Wes Bentley‘s Seneca Crane beard puts Robert Downey Jr.‘s Iron Man beard trimming to shame.
-I thought Lenny Kravitz was surprisingly good as Katniss’ stylist/mentor Cinna, one of the few likable people in the Capitol. I also feel like I should mention Woody Harrelson, but I didn’t really feel much of anything about his character. He was cool, I guess, but I’d like to see him get in on the action in the sequels.
-I like that most of the film was shot in beautiful North Carolina. Like I’ve said countless times, I enjoy taking in new and different locations in these big movies. The less I see the streets of New York and L.A., the better.
-Finally, ya know what I really liked? The black kids in the competition didn’t die first! In fact, one of them (Rue, as played by young Amandla Stenberg) is a significant part of Katniss’ success! Holy shit!
WHAT I WASN’T CRAZY ABOUT/DIDN’T LIKE
-I wasn’t crazy about the cinematography, I’m sad to say. They used way too many extreme closeups and way too much handheld camerawork, especially in the first third of the movie. I’m trying to enjoy getting introduced to this world and these characters, but the camera is bouncing all over the damn place, shoved right into people’s faces, and I wasn’t getting any perspective. I think that was the total wrong way to go. You can be gritty without shoving the camera up people’s noses. I kept begging for them to pull back and give me a fucking wide shot. I understand that they wanted to convey a sense of the poverty and despair in this place, but they were only a saturation removal away from making it Schindler’s List. I’m not saying it should’ve been glossy or flashy or modern, but I think they went a bit too far in the other direction.
This carried over to the action sequences, which suffered from an immense bout of claustrophobia. I realize Gary Ross is not a veteran of fighting sequences, but he’s certainly done action before. The horse race sequences in Seabiscuit are brilliantly shot. Here, in the few hand-to-hand combat scenes we get, it’s often tough to tell what’s going on because of how tightly the scenes are filmed. There’s no sense of geography, particularly in the climactic battle with that Cato dude.
Even though there was some great production design. I just wasn’t thrilled by the look of the movie on the whole. I couldn’t really point to any specific shots that I loved, and there are always a few great singular images from the best movies. More on that in a bit.
–This movie needed a visionary director, and while Gary Ross is a damned good director, he’s not a visionary. What do I mean by that? Well, just imagine, for example, if Ridley Scott had directed this same script. How different would it have looked and felt? Astronomically so, and for the better. I say there are 3 levels of directorial skill; the first is a hack, which is the bottom rung. Guys who have no real vision and often make shitty movies that feel like something you’ve seen a hundred times before. Let’s throw Raja Gosnell, Steve Carr, and, say, anyone who directs an Adam Sandler comedy, into this group. Next up is the director-for-hire, guys who do all sorts of different movies (the biggest name director-for-hire right now is probably Shawn Levy), but you don’t feel their stamp or any signature style on their work. The movies are often passable-to-good, but rarely memorable, at least not for their visual palette. The third level, and where you want to be, is the visionary. You watch a visionary director’s films and many times, without seeing the credits, you can probably tell who directed that film. And these are all your obvious favorites, from Hitchcock to Kubrick to Kurosawa to Scorsese to Spielberg to Tarantino to Fincher. Hell, even Michael Bay is a visionary, if we’re being honest. If you’re a super movie geek, another popular word for the visionary is the auteur. Gary Ross is at the top end of director-for-hire. He’s really good, but can you tell me one signature trait from a Gary Ross film? Me neither. What I’m getting at here is that I just wish we’d been introduced to the Hunger Games universe by a visionary. Remind me to expand on this topic for a separate post down the road…
-Even though Katniss is a great female role, I don’t see why that meant Peeta (great name for a guy, by the way- yeesh) had to be a complete pussy most of the movie. I guess if you’re a male named Peeta, you have to be a wussbag. Instead of the damsel in distress, here we have a dude in distress. Waaaahhh, me leggy hurts, me don’t wanna move. You no leave me! I afraid! They find me, no leave me! Waaaaahhhh! At least, that’s what I heard whenever he spoke in the final third of the movie. Is this what draws so many women to the story, the fact that the girl saves the guy? Why did it have to be a role reversal? Why couldn’t they both be strong people? Or is that the other guy’s role in the sequels, to fill out the love triangle as the macho man? Oy vai. Please tell me this series doesn’t Twilight its way into a big love triangle story arc. It does, doesn’t it? Notice how the other dude (Liam Hemsworth) is named Gale? WTF? What’s with the male protagonists with female-sounding names? Now I’m surprised Katniss’ name wasn’t Michael.
-I wasn’t crazy about Donald Sutherland as President Snow. One, I need more backstory on this guy. Where’s he from? How long has he been President? I have no idea how he got to be President, what powers the President has in this society, or what his individual policies and views are. Two, I just think Sutherland is getting lazy with age. He’s put on all this weight in recent years, apparently doesn’t ever wanna shave again in his life, and has either lost some of his immense talent, or just isn’t trying as hard. Either way, it’s really disappointing. I can’t remember the last time I saw him in something and really liked him. He used to be one of the best character actors in the business, but this performance couldn’t have been more mailed in if he were wearing a UPS uniform the entire movie. Sad face L
-I don’t know how you manage to waste Toby Jones, but this movie pulled it off. Maybe he was promised that his character (Claudius Templesmith) features more prominently in the sequels, but what does have here, three lines? Four, maybe? And he’s basically just playing a sports commentator? I kept waiting for him to get some juicy scene, be it with Stanley Tucci or Jennifer Lawrence. Or with anybody! But it never happened. I think you see him spit out one line about the killer wasps, and then you hear his voice a couple of times near the end of the film talking to the contestants like Ed Harris‘ voice of god in The Truman Show. What a disappointment. This is like hiring Morgan Freeman to narrate your documentary, and only having him read the title cards.
–Missed opportunities for cool moments. And it’s hard to describe what I mean by that, but as I mentioned above, in all great movies there are classic individual moments. I couldn’t tell you my favorite single moment from The Hunger Games. I guess that all starts with the writing. The script here is good (how faithful to the book it is I don’t really care), but not memorable. What was one really cool shot? What are the classic lines of dialogue? I know “May the odds be ever in your favor”, but that’s only because people say it 48 fucking times.
Here’s a (completely unfair) example of classic moments:
No, I didn’t expect The Hunger Games to have a single moment approaching the 700 amazing moments from Braveheart, but in that one 2:41 clip, there are 6 or 7 classic moments we all remember, a half dozen classic individual shots, as well as several grade A lines of quotable dialogue. I can watch that scene just once completely out of context and get misty eyed. What do I remember about The Hunger Games? I remember that goofy moment where Katniss & Peeta enter the procession with those weird Black Swan outfits and fake-looking flames on their backs. Bravo.
Another thing, there weren’t enough reaction shots of people watching the games. This is allegedly the Super Bowl of this world, yet we never really see reaction shots showing people getting excited. Where do these upper class people in the Capitol watch the games? At home? At weird-looking bars? We get shots of Katniss’ family and friends back home in District 12, but they’re all morbidly concerned. Where are the people who enjoy every second of this stuff? Where’s the “vulgar crowd”? And yes, I realize that would’ve made a pretty long movie even longer, but I don’t think 10 seconds of reaction shots sprinkled in throughout the games would have been a big deal. I could have done with two fewer shots of Gale crowing in angst about the budding romance between Katniss & Peeta (but does anyone doubt that will soon become an internet meme?).
And the ending? (SPOILERS AHEAD!) Lame. So the last moments of the film are President Snow glaring at the monitors, pissed off that these two winners just broke his sacred rules. He turns around, walks up some stairs and we CUT TO BLACK on a shot of his ass, ROLL CREDITS. Wha? That’s it?!
I’m willing to bet the book has a much cooler ending than “President Snow, dissatisfied with the day’s events, unable to bear watching a second more of Katniss & Peeta being celebrated back home in lowly District 12, turns and walks up the stairs, all super grumpy and shit. The End.” I’m just guessing there, but I bet the book’s ending is a little more interesting. Hopefully.
I think that’s a good balance between likes and dislikes. I liked the movie, but obviously I feel there’s a lot of room for improvement. But I guess it’s a good thing I still have so many questions. There’s a lot about this Panem world that I’m still curious about heading into the sequels, and I hope they spend some time filling out the non-Hunger Games aspects of the story. I got a sense in my screening that people were into it, but there weren’t really any big applause moments for the diehards. It was even stranger, though, in that once the movie ended, there was no applause whatsoever (typically a lock for a fanboy/girl movie like this). Maybe like me, they were baffled by how stupid that final shot was. I stayed through the end credits, if for no other reason than to avoid the gridlock caused by the other 1,000 people who were all trying to leave the parking lot at the same time. (FYI, there’s no cut scene at the end, if you were wondering.)
Well, that’s about it, I suppose. No matter what I say or how many of you reading this go see the movie, it’s going to be a massive hit. It grossed $19.75 million just from its midnight shows, and is on pace to gross well over $120 million this opening weekend (it supposedly cost right around $80 million to make, a relative bargain). Lionsgate finally has a smash hit franchise, and no doubt the sequel, Catching Fire, will be rushed into production for a 2014 release. You don’t have to love it, but look at the bright side…the Twilight “saga” is almost over!!!
THE HUNGER GAMES – PG-13/142 minutes
IMDb rating: 7/10
Flixster rating: 3.5/5 stars
I’m interested to see what Wrath of the Titans has in store next Friday, although it looks very much like the movies I mentioned earlier in this post that cater only to teenage boys. It looks like a 2 hour visual effects reel. Cool to look at (I love me some mythological creatures!), but severely lacking in story or depth. As long as there isn’t an absurdly anticlimactic “Medusa head instantly kills the Kraken” moment, I should enjoy myself. And if that doesn’t work, Game of Thrones returns next Sunday. Did I mention Game of Thrones starts again next week? Season 2? April 1? Sunday? Next Sunday?
FAP FAP FAP FAP FAP