*There are probably spoilers in here!*
Jesus Harold Christ. This movie was so bad that I don’t know where to begin. I’m going to forego the usual summarizing of the story (although much of it will be referred to in the below), because most people will already know it, and if not, there are plenty of online places you can go to read about it – other reviews, Wikipedia, etc. I’ll jump straight to the discussion. If you need to read a synopsis of the story, find one out there and meet me back here when you’re done.
The more I analyze this movie, the worse I think it is. Let me give you a piece of circular logic: The more disbelief needs to be suspended, the greater an effort to suspend it is required from the storytelling. Obvious, right? It means that if a premise is hard to swallow, the story needs to embellish it in such a way that the audience is distracted from the lack of credibility by the bells and whistles of stylism and action. The sillier the premise, the more important it is that it be presented in an impressively entertaining way, so we can fool ourselves into believing that there is some substance here which is worth our precious time. Actually, most Hollywood movies work by this formula. Explosions serve this purpose, as does a lot of action and fight scenes.
The Hunger Games gravely disappoints in this as in nearly all other ways. Beyond a bit of interesting stylism in terms of costuming, it’s bad, bad news all the way. The setting it very poorly presented. Nothing about the plot is halfway coherent. There are no real statements or messages of any kind. Every time I hoped something interesting would start to happen, it didn’t. And cinematically, the movie is downright cowardly. You want me to qualify that? No problem.
First off, the basic premise. Adolescent kids taken from oppressed and starving communities and forced to kill each other for the entertainment of the rich and shallow, and as a continuing reminder and reprimand for some old rebellion. This is called the Hunger Games, for no reason that is explained in the movie. You would think that it is called so because the winner will ensure a bigger portion of food for his/her community, but we see nothing about that in the movie. So it may as well mean “games that are engaged in by hungry people”. In any case, the logic is already shot to pieces here. Why is it kids – presumably already weakened by hunger although they don’t look it – who are chosen for the Hunger Games? Apparently, the motivation of the rich is pure sadism (although this is not made explicit in the movie. Of course, in real life the motivation is to make money off this story by targeting the wallets of the young and easily gulled). This is very hard to swallow. Harder still to accept, however, is that the parents of these kids basically just accepts it all. This is one of the most blatant misunderstandings or disregards of human nature I have ever seen. Anyone who understands anything about parental feelings knows that, no matter how downtrotten and oppressed you are, you do not accept the systematic slaughter of your kids. You will rebel and you will sacrifice yourself before you let that happen. Okay. But let’s say that for some reason it can happen anyway. We’re forced to, aren’t we, if we are to keep discussing this movie. Say, maybe all the parents are drugged or traumatized like Katniss’ mother. Stupid, but it brings us onward.
Next let’s talk symbolism. Take the setting. We have twelve districts, each of which has its own field of trade; coalmining, fishing, etc. The technology the district populations have access to is 19th century, tops. They are not allowed to even eke out a living corresponding to the goods they produce; rather, the rich and technologically advanced Capitol is keeping them in such abject poverty that the districts are nearly starving, and where something as basic as bread (I mean, how much more basic a foodstuff is there?) is a rare and amazing luxury. One wonders what they normally eat. Hot gravel? The gap between rich and poor, in other words, is mindboggling, with the rich being super-evil and self-centered, having no shred of any pangs of conscience about actively keeping the poor on the constant edge of starvation.
Now, this in itself is not ludicrous. If the rest of the story warranted the interpretation, this could easily be seen as a critique of capitalism and the gaps in worldwide wealth that it creates and maintains. The evil affluent citizens of the Capitol are also dressed in outrageous fashions (plenty of purple! And Stanley Tucci with blue hair!) and clearly obsessed with their personal appearance, signifying an extreme shallowness and decadence that I take to be a scathing critique of the real-world fashion industry. This element is the one thing I really like about the movie. Sadly, however, this theme is never developed; an anti-capitalist reading is never followed up on or substantiated. It seems much more likely that the disparity between the districts and the Capitol is supposed to illustrate the differences between the adolescent and the adult worlds; how unamenable to the plight of youth the adult world is, and how the concerns of the adults are just silly and egotistical while the young people are smothered and asphyxiated from lack of proper care. And while this may be what it often looks like from the adolescent point of view (and while it may even to some limited extent be true, although not actually due to adult ill will, and not with this kind of life-threatening severity), it is, in the way it is conveyed here, just as self-centered and self-pitying as what the adults are portrayed as, and amounts to little more than teenage whining.
Now, you would think that at the very least this theme of kids vs. grown-ups would be followed up on in the movie and taken in a direction that actually made some kind of status quo-critical statement that would make this symbolism meaningful. But you would be wrong. The story changes nothing; it simply focuses on the main characters, who may be reluctant but never rebel and never think to stop playing by the Capitol’s rules. Well, there is one tiny brief scene towards the end when they do, and are kind of rewarded for it, but it’s such a tiny detail as to not matter in the scheme of things. There is no change for the plight of the districts, and no change in the nature and attitudes of the Capitol citizens. In a movie where oppressed kids are the powerless victims of sadistic adults and where this is clearly a reprehensible state of affairs, you would think that there was a progressive message hidden somewhere inside the narrative; that the whole setting was constructed for the purpose of supporting a rebellion against unjust authority and repression – and once again you would be wrong! What really gobs my smack and flappers my gast about this movie is that it conveys no anti-authoritarian message whatsoever. It points out injustice in a way that makes it appear as if this injustice should be fought, but everything ultimately takes place on the terms of the evil rich, playing their game, obeying their rules, being critical of nothing. The main kid characters come across as merely a bit willful and obstinate, but ultimately accepting their lot. This doesn’t make any sense! Why then create such a story in the first place? Are the awful adults supposed to be the good guys after all?! If so, we are down to an interpretation of the movie as being deeply conservative and Social-Darwinist – as decadent as the Capitol citizenry – and just pretending to be about the plight of the young and the poor. Which any intelligent viewer must see as profoundly repulsive.
Next, let’s talk about the action, the violence, the tone and the intention. The whole premise – the central point and idea that the entire story is based on – is a reality show event where young people are forced to kill each other. On live television. For the viewers to thrill at and bet on. However, the author of the original book (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has said that she doesn’t want to glorify violence. Well, in principle I’m all for not glorifying violence, but in a story of this precise type, which is also a highly escapist movie, there bloody has to be some violence! Otherwise, what is the story really about? But no, violence is a no go, because this is a kids’ movie after all. So what we get in the movie is a few training sequences, some really annoying shaky-cam action scenes that show virtually nothing, and a lot of the main character jumping through hoops to avoid killing and violence, say, by throwing wasp nests at her opponents. Can you feel the suspense? The danger, the anxiety and the high-stakes excitement? No? Me neither. Bottom line: if you don’t want to show any violence, why are you doing a story about people who are forced to kill each other? Does this work better in the original book? Some claim so, but I doubt it very much and in a case such as this I am not about to waste my time having my doubts confirmed.
I am not a particular fan of thrillkills, but in movies the way killing comes across all depends on the tone of the narrative, as it relates to the genre. There are many different possible storytelling tones. If the tone is somewhat light and clearly not supposed to be taken seriously, like in some kung fu and zombie movies, there can be a certain comic-book comedy to the killing of characters. If on the other hand, say, the tone is serious and dramatic, killing can have a devastating impact which is very necessary for the story to maintain its consistency of tone. The overall tone communicated by The Hunger Games, led by and carried entirely on the capable shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence’s somber and too-good acting, has erratic ups and downs which create the impression of very shoddy storytelling and is deeply unsatisfactory on every level.
Let me just mention a couple of the thousand big and small things that don’t make any sense. Early on, when given a piece of bread, a girl responds, “Wow, is it real?!” Like, they usually only see fake bread? I mean, think about it: what could ever be the point of fake bread? It’s not like bread is an article of ornament. Seems like a gratuitous and very misguided reference to Blade Runner and its artificial animals.
Plotwise, during the Hunger Games, where the kids are supposed to kill each other over a few days (there can be only one winner), there is an alliance between five or six of the kids. This doesn’t make any sense. If they were immortal, as in Highlander, and might still live for thousands of years, such an alliance could work. But knowing that they are going to have to do everything possible to kill each other in the course of a few days? No. Maybe if the alliance consisted of individuals opposed to the whole idea, and hellbent on not killing each other, it could work. But these kids are the cocky ones who embrace the idea of the games, which makes it ridiculous. Also, they are portrayed like completely one-track-minded killing machines; over the top evil. I know it’s exaggerated for the “benefit” of a young audience, but even so it remains offensively bad and one-dimensional.
Finally, let me mention Battle Royale, a Japanese teen horror movie from twelve years ago with the same basic premise. You’ve probably heard of it, as it is frequently and justifiably cited as the precursor to The Hunger Games. When I first saw Battle Royale some four or five years ago, I was disappointed by it. The execution of the plot left me cold in most regards (I didn’t feel that story got its tone right, either), but in many ways that matter it is a much better movie than The Hunger Games. The straightforward symbolism of fed-up adults who put unruly juvenile delinquents on a deserted island where they have to kill themselves was an interesting commentary on Japanese authoritarianism, and how harshly it traditionally clamps down on youth rebellion. In fact, now I feel that Battle Royale deserves a rewatch and a revaluation. The Hunger Games is a text-book example of the lack of edge and courage that a tediously politically correct Western version of a similar story tends to have, foolishly focusing on protecting the audience from the true grit of the premise, which of course defeats the entire purpose of telling the story in the first place. What a dud.
Well. Most of the shortcomings I have mentioned may all be attributed to the fact that The Hunger Games is a kids’ movie. To my mind, the Harry Potter and Twilight movies have very similar problems, amounting to a lack of good themes for adult audiences, making them kids’ movies rather than for all ages to appreciate (all the best kids’ movies are also all-ages movies). But the basic plot of The Hunger Games is a subject that even the author apparently considers hopelessly inappropriate for a young audience, leading to complete symbolical, structural and narrative failure and self-deconstruction. What’s the intention? I can spot none but the petty desire to make money by appealing to the young and impressionable.
One thing I also have to mention is that this execrable movie is generally getting good to excellent reviews. It smacks of a conspiracy. I have long suspected that something like this is going on, but this clinches it: early influential reviews are being copy-catted by other major reviewers across the world, sometimes probably without the latter even having seen the movie. Sometimes it’s probably part of a bought-and-paid-for marketing campaign and other times it’s just mindless going with the flow. Sounds outrageous? Well, if you are a reviewer insider you know that this kind of thing happens. And more often that you’d think. Believe it. I know I do.
I have more to say, but this review/commentary is already too long. Suffice to say that the quality of the story does not even reach the level of a Spy Kids movie. This is “safe, clean entertainment you can trust” if you’re a Bible Belt parent who lives and breathes political correctness. For everyone else, it’s toothless tripe, bland as tofu, and should be considered profoundly uncool by every self-respecting teenager.
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks and others
Runtime: 142 min.