Monday, 30 April 2012

BLOCKBUSTER: The Hunger Games (2012)

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The Hunger Games (USA, 2012)
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Helmsworth, Elizabeth Banks 

For all the bile and boredom caused by awards season, few things fill a seasoned film fan with more dread than the first blockbuster of ‘the long summer’. The first studio tent-pole of a calendar year can set the tone for the whole period between this year’s Oscar party finishing and next year’s nominations starting. If that film is bad (worse still, if it’s bad and takes money) it can send so-called true film fans running for the hills, going into hibernation to save up for something with an ounce of brains.
Fortunately, this year is different – at least so far. The Hunger Games, billed as Lord of the Flies for the Twilight generation, has been hyped to the gills like so many of its competitors. The targeted media campaign and huge buzz surrounding the trailers could have resulted in the kind of abject disappointment caused by the majority of modern blockbusters. In fact, it’s a really great film, joining the company of SourceCode and Inception as one of the best blockbusters of recent times.
Both the novel and film of The Hunger Games have their roots in dystopian science fiction, something which is clearly brought out in Gary Ross’ visual decisions. The film is replete with references to other science fiction and fantasy films which have addressed issues surrounding the possible morality of television, the role of children in society, and how advanced societies have reduced and compartmentalised violence, turning a genuine external threat into a form of entertainment.
 
Many critics have compared this to Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku’s ultra-violent swan song in which hundreds of Japanese schoolchildren are conscripted into a government game and brutally murder each other. While Ross and author Suzanne Collins have not acknowledged Battle Royale as an influence, its gruesome updating of Lord of the Flies is in the back of all The Hunger Games’ moral dilemmas. This time around the threat is not nuclear annihilation, nor internal civil unrest: it is the need to reduce violence down to entertainment, using children to pacify and galvanise the masses to prevent history repeating itself.
 
The visuals of The Hunger Games are like a catalogue of science fiction references. The long sections in the woods, with Katniss and Peeta teaming up and joining forces, recall the middle section of Logan’s Run where Logan and Jessica stumble outside the city walls and discover the ruins of their ancestors. The policemen and riot gear are similar aesthetically to those in Soylent Green, while the rubber cat-suits worn at the presentation of the tributes are a possible nod to the X-Men series.
 
There are other references on show too from outside of science fiction. The opening scene, in which children from Sector 12 are lined up to face the Reaping, is eerily close to the long scenes in Schindler’s List where  the Jews are registered by the German authorities. The fashions in the Capitol, particularly in the costumes worn by Elizabeth Banks, are somewhere between the Flesh Fair from A.I., the films of Tim Burton and the most bizarre offerings of London Fashion Week. There is a grotesquely gothic feel to many of the characters which have the darker aspects of Burton written all over them.
 
Under normal circumstances, being able to spot so many such references, and with such ease, would lead to disappointment. They would create a feeling of over-familiarity, a sense that the film was deeply derivative, and that its eye-catching visuals were simply an ineffective distraction from the lack of anything new. But with The Hunger Games this is not the case, and there are two good reasons for this.
 
Firstly, it is refreshing to find a modern-day blockbuster which genuinely understands science fiction, and which is trying to present a dystopian, 1970s story with a modern sheen. Much like James Watkins on The Woman in Black, Gary Ross clearly has great knowledge and affection for these kinds of stories, and believes crucially that they have validity for modern audiences. His creative decisions draw from the sci-fi well very deeply, but with every decision he wants his audience to think, offering them familiarity not as a form of comfort but as a platform for further examination.
Secondly, The Hunger Games uses all these tropes and motifs to tell an interesting story to great effect. The film examines the ethics of reality television, drawing on works like Shock Treatment, The Running Man and especially My Little Eye, which argued that reality TV is essentially the new pornography. The harrowing plight of the young protagonists is set against the backdrop of a society based on extreme inequality and voyeuristic hedonism. The Capitol parties at the expense of those in the Hunger Games, making huge amounts of money while the little people are either murdered or left to starve.
 
The film is brilliant at exploring manipulation, again contrasting the internal game theory of the tributes with the outside tampering of the rules. The world outside The Hunger Games is one of flamboyance and excess, with the Games’ producers exhibiting as ruthless a drive for ratings as Faye Dunaway’s character in Network. They introduce new obstacles whenever audiences get bored, resulting to firebombing the forest and unleashing tigers with no consideration for the competitors.
 
This atmosphere of the rules constantly changing is reflected in the characters’ psychology. Peeta states ahead of the Games that “whatever happens, I still want to be me” – but as soon as he enters the arena, he forms an alliance with three of his rivals in order to track down and kill Katniss. Katniss likewise finds herself pandering to her audience, flaunting her flaming dress on the chat show to get sponsors and agreeing to ‘fall in love’ with Peeta. The romance between them is intentionally forced, so that we are unsure whether it is tactical or genuine emotion.
 
There has been some controversy over the classification of the film, with much discussion over what may or may not have been omitted to get a 12A. Regardless of what may have been lost, the film is incredibly brutal, with scenes that would be troubling at any level. Ross’ rapid handheld camerawork means that the bloody deaths are not shown in as much detail as would be allowed at 15. But even with the evasive camerawork and sparing levels of blood, this is definitely top-end 12A. 
 
The Hunger Games is impressive for balancing both the shock of its subject matter and the attractive aura of its visual landscape. Certain images in the film are amazingly cool, such as Katniss and Peeta riding into the Capitol in a chariot with flames coming off their clothing. But there are at least as many images which are disturbing, shocking or repulsive, for all the right reasons. The death of Rue is deeply traumatic, interrupting the thrill of the chase to remind us how grim things really are.
The film is anchored by the tremendous central performance of Jennifer Lawrence. Having excelled in Winter’s Bone two years ago, this is the performance that cements her as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. She has grace, grit and immense charisma, creating a character that may come to be regarded as this generation’s Lieutenant Ripley. She is capably supported by a career-best Elizabeth Banks, a compellingly irascible Woody Harrelson, a shimmering Stanley Tucci and a wonderfully slimy Toby Jones. 
The Hunger Games is one of the best films of 2012 and perhaps the best blockbuster since Inception. It’s clearly not the most visually distinctive film ever made, and the familiarity of its references may put some viewers off. But for the most part it is an impressive demonstration of how good mainstream sci-fi can be when it is made by people who understand both the genre and the fans. There is plenty to chew on in this chilling and thrilling film, and I am genuinely looking forward to the sequel. 

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: The best blockbuster since Inception

6 comments:

I should go see The Hunger Games. I'm a fan of your blog. I especially enjoyed your post about A Clockwork Orange. If you want to check my blog (comic books & movies) here's a link: www.artbyarion.blogspot.com

Cheers.

Thanks Arion, will be sure to do so. Be sure to follow so you don't miss future posts! :)

You're welcome, and I'm already your newest follower.

Ah yes, hadn't noticed that :)

Um... I seemed to be less affected by the deaths of the main characters then you were, also the shaky camera early on in proceedings was entirely unnecessary, I can understand why they used it during the action sequences (to minimize the visual impact of the violence) but it rendered them incomprehensible. Lawrence is great I agree, but a blockbuster like Super 8 is a better film.

God job.

I don't understand the backlash against shaky camera at all. Considering it's a film aimed at teenagers, and therefore you can show people getting completely decapitated or brutally murdered, it's a good technique to use to build up panic and tension (of course you need to care about the characters, but you do, so that's fine). I can't agree that the action was incomprehensible for the simple reason that I could follow it.

I must also disagree about Super 8 - an example of a film that was equally hyped to the gills but was just too self-conscious and trickery-based to have the heart it needed. But hey, to each his own, and thanks for commenting :)

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