The once proud continent of North America has given way to a totalitarian state known as Panem where the rich and powerful Capitol lords over 12 poor worker bee Districts. As a response to an uprising of its people many years ago, the Capitol instituted a yearly competition known as “The Hunger Games”; in a ceremony known as “The Reaping”, a boy and girl age 12-18 is randomly selected from each District as “Tributes” to do battle in a televised death match. These Games not only serve as entertainment for those fortunate enough to live in the Capitol, but also as a reminder of who really is in charge of Panem.
This is the bleak dystopian future presented in The Hunger Games, based on the 2008 novel by Suzanne Collins. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old who resides in District 12 who volunteers for the Games after her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected. Her and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are then whisked away to the Capitol where they undergo physical and survival training, are given advice by their mentor and former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and are grilled on television by talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). All of this preparation leads up to the Games themselves, where the 24 participants are dropped into a game zone resembling a forest and are forced to kill one another until there is only one left.
The Hunger Games has been under a microscope since it was announced that Lionsgate was turning it into a movie. Since then, countless news pieces have been written about every stage of its production and the Lionsgate marketing team has inundated the movie blogs with tons of photos, trailers, and posters. And while that seems to be working to their benefit, those of you not swayed by a swanky marketing machine will be glad to know that The Hunger Games is deserving of all the press; it’s a competent science fiction movie with a heavy emotional core and one of the stronger female leads in recent movie history. Its story is engaging through out, and from a visual standpoint its design is very appealing (as appealing as a dystopian world can be anyway). But while The Hunger Games has truly effective performances and moments, it also suffers from a few noticeable and distracting flaws, especially when it concerns the pacing.
Across the board, the performances in The Hunger Games are stellar. Lawrence shines as Katniss, carrying the movie with ease and creating a fully fleshed out character. Her physical prowess (she’s perfect with a bow and arrow) and proud exterior hide a heavy emotional battle going on underneath as she tries desperately to survive the Hunger Games to get home to her family. And when the emotions do come out, feelings of dread or intense sadness, Lawrence nails them perfectly. Hutcherson gives a great performance as well as Peeta, District 12′s other Tribute who has his own history with Katniss.
They are joined by a great supporting cast, who don’t have a lot of screen time, but stand out regardless. Harrelson makes a great mentor out of Haymitch, doling out advice while also delivering some much needed humor to the proceedings. Joining him in these lighthearted moments is Elizabeth Banks, who is unrecognizable as Capitol liaison Effie Trinket (we’ll come back to her later). Lenny Kravitz even delivers a good, if a bit creepy, performance as Cinna, Katniss and Peeta’s fashion designer who is a bit too empathetic to their cause (and very hands-on). On the antagonist side, Wes Bentley is cooly evil as the Gamesmaster Seneca Crane and Donald Sutherland is great, if a bit generic, as Panem’s leader President Snow. And then there’s Tucci, who essentially steals the show every time he’s on screen as Caesar. His character is eccentric and ridiculous, complete with fake teeth, but Tucci jumps right in and every time he’s on screen you know you’ll get something good out of him.
The Hunger Games also benefits from an interesting visual style. I rarely ever talk about costuming, but the contrast between the poor Districts (generic worker clothes) and the over the top style of the Capitol stand out so much that it needs to be mentioned. Judianna Makovsky deserves some recognition for coming up with the costume designs; they’re tailor made for future Halloweens and convention cosplays. And although this in no way factors into the movie itself, the whacky beard of Seneca gets bonus points. I can’t even put into words how awesome it looks.
The Hunger Games has some truly effective moments. When the Games begin, and we first witness how brutal they are, it’s jarring; right away, the Tributes go after each other in bloody ways, strangling and stabbing and doing whatever they can to survive. The Hunger Games do not screw around, and for those taking their kids to see this due to its PG-13 rating, it may make them rethink their decision. Each death is given some sort of weight, with one in particular resulting in a District riot, which is without a doubt the most powerful scene in the entire movie. It’ll choke you up. And even though you are pretty sure who will survive, it’s a trilogy in the making after all, it’s a credit to The Hunger Games that some deaths still come off relatively surprising.
There is so much good in The Hunger Games that it makes its flaws stand out that much more. Pacing is its biggest issue, as The Hunger Games is split into two different halves: there’s the pre-Games preparation and the Games themselves. The first half is paced really well, and is absolutely engaging. The whole lead up to the Games is fascinating and unfortunately very plausible and resonant given how much our society adores Reality TV and celebrity. All the prep work that goes into getting the Games going, deciding who goes in, what their “rating” is, etc.; all of that is fascinating. And then weirdly enough when the Games actually start, that’s when it begins to drag. Katniss’ first few days in the woods consist of climbing trees and tying herself to them. That’s it. That and other moments are essentially the “radio silence” of the movie, awkward moments that break the tension and derail the momentum.
And although The Hunger Games has a substantial running time, some characters get the short end of the stick and even disappear entirely. To go back to Effie Trinket, her point of being in the movie is never really established and there’s the fact no one ever really calls her by name. The only reason I know it is because I know someone who read the books and they told me. Otherwise I would’ve just called her “perky Kabuki broad”. And while the deaths of the other Tributes are given weight, there is one in particular that is supposed to be the important death, but they are introduced so late and her importance to one of the characters is so rushed that when it happens, it doesn’t have the impact it should. I was left thinking more “…and?” rather than “HOLY CRAP!”. Thankfully it makes up for it right after, but it seemed like a pretty important emotional beat to mess up.
And I’m sure this is a complaint only because I haven’t read the books, but the weird romance/friendship between Katniss and fellow District 12 kid Gale (Liam Hemsworth) had absolutely no weight whatsoever. None. When they flashed to his reaction to the Games, it seemed pointless. I’m sure he’ll be a bigger deal in the next couple of movies, but for The Hunger Games, he was moot and didn’t seem worth the time to set up. The Katniss/Peeta friendship, however, was excellently done, although I’m sure people are going to read more into that than they should.
Some of the effects in The Hunger Games also looked cheap in a distracting sense. The Capitol itself is comprised of piss poor CGI, which made it look embarrassingly fake. And one of the more pivotal scenes in the first half of the movie, where Katniss and Peeta are introduced to the crowd wearing clothes that are on fire, is botched by not only the crowd and scenery around them looking fake but the fire itself coming off unbelievable. It seems like a scene that worked in the book but its cinematic equivalent comes off hokey.
So yes, The Hunger Games suffers from some bad pacing, lack of explanation concerning characters, and a few emotional moments that fell flat on its face, but overall it’s a fine science fiction film that should appeal to the mainstream public once the initial shock of the Games themselves wear off. The story is on the whole engaging and the world presented is fascinating, and its quality is boosted by the wonderful cast, with Lawrence and Tucci in particular really shining. The Hunger Games is a satisfying first movie that leads perfectly into sequels, and I for one am on board to see where the story goes. Bring on Part 2.
As you can tell, I had a lot to say. Feel free to leave a comment, and let’s discuss the movie some more. Just make sure you write “SPOILERS” before you spoil any parts of the movie. Don’t want to be stabbed in the face. Metaphorically.