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Review: The Hunger Games

Do you like mockingjays? I like mockingjays. So let's watch The Hunger Games!

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With Harry Potter long gone and Twilight approaching its climax, studios are looking for the next big blockbuster novel to give the film treatment. Enter The Hunger Games, a fresh and different take that results in a concoction of ideas, both good and bad, that don’t quite add up to a fully enriching film. The potential for a tense, romantic, thought-provoking experience is there, but the filmmakers fail to push it far enough. What results is an adaption that feels merely satisfactory despite some strong elements.

The Hunger Games opens in the Panem region, a futuristic metropolis surrounded by 12 districts that live in poverty. Each year, a male and female representative is randomly selected from each district to take part in a brutal survival show called The Hunger Games, a punishment for rebelling against the government 74 years ago. After her sister is selected as the District 12 “tribute”, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her place to protect her sister and family. While preparing for the games, Katniss is exposed to a new society completely opposite of hers. She is also given time with the District 12 male selection, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and introduced to former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).

Then comes the Hunger Games, but I’ll get into that later.

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Lawrence is effective as the lead. As Katniss, she leaves a lasting impression and gives her character a stiff personality. She is an older sister taking care of her family in place of her mother, of whom she does not respect because she failed to provide for the family in a time of need. The opening scenes with her and Primrose showcase how strong of a bond they share and it pains us to see that bond cut off. Her screentime partner, Hutcherson, makes for a convincing Peeta and they both act well together on screen. We are involved in their relationship, which takes its time to develop in the film and is only hampered by occasional inane dialogue. Both actors also look very fine and are sure to appeal to the target demographic who will no doubt want posters of them all over their rooms.

The film has a PG-13 rating and it’s earned from its scenes of violence and terror. There is a lot of blood in this film, probably as much as a PG-13 rating will allow, and anyone who feels queasy at the sight of it coming from adolescents should stray away from it. That being said, there is little actual carnage. Dead bodies are prevalent but considering the violent acts being performed the film holds back quite a bit. The film emphasizes its romance story more than anything else and while that helps keep its rating intact, it hampers the message it tries to send. And that becomes a problem, especially since the ones in the field of battle are adolescents. Do I believe that film should restrain itself from putting kids in peril? No. But when they are finished at the rate in which they are in the film it’s unsettling to think about how most of it goes in vain in the end. The fact that what is being done is wrong is touched upon in the film, but the message never quite gets across in the end. Instead, it leaves it up to future installments to address.

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A fascinating aspect of The Hunger Games is the quote-on-quote “civilized” world. It’s obviously a play on modern society and its reliance on technology and appearance, but it’s interesting nonetheless because of the lens we’re seeing it through. The poverty-stricken atmosphere of the districts feels more familiar to us, and once the modernized peoples are introduced they look as alien to us as they look to the people living in those wooden homes. In some ways, though, the film shows too much. There is a subplot involving the founder of the games and the current host that goes nowhere and has little involvement on the plot. It also paints the potential antagonist as a one-dimensional villain. These parts could’ve easily been removed to increase the emphasis on the main story.

There is a nice buildup to the Hunger Games, although some of the events that occur beforehand are more ludicrous than worthwhile. The tributes are made into stars and glamorized on television and talk shows, and during those scenes I couldn’t help but wonder whether these people realized they were heading to their deaths. The thought is pushed into the back of their heads, but not ours. There are training sessions during which each person must prove him or herself and gain sponsors, of whom will help them during the games. These scenes give us a small glimpse into each characters traits and skills and it made the adversaries more apparent.

Now we get to the actual Hunger Games. I’m going to be vague about what transpires so as to prevent spoilers, but I will say this: this is where the movie starts to come apart at the seams.

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Even with a lack of gore and carnage watching how the characters is unpleasant. In one scene a girl is stung to death by a hive of lethal hornets, and it is not pretty to watch or comprehend. She was just an innocent citizen unluckily chosen at random, and all she was trying to do is survive. Naturally we should feel sorry for these people but the film thinks of its characters more as fodder than human beings. Only once is a death taken seriously and effectively but it comes after too many people have been killed already.

The antagonists of the games are also very stupid. Quiz time: if you’ve allied three people with you and you have the strongest player unarmed and trapped in a tree what do you do? Go after her of course. Not so, say these young fools. Rather, it’s better to camp around the tree and wait for her to come down or starve, rather than throw knives and shoot arrows at her (these people are trained warriors who have mastered their weapons). Perhaps there’s an explanation for this. Arrogance? Pride? Bigheadedness? I think I’ll settle for poor screenwriting for now. Either way, moments like this exist throughout the film and it takes away from the sense of peril the movie wants to offer.

Action-wise the film also suffers. Fight scenes are film with quick-cuts that are so quick you can barely discern what is happening. Considering that part of the allure of the film is the action this is a disappointment. Alas, it is but one of many films that choose to shoot this way. When it becomes hard to make out what is happening during an action scene it's hard to get involved in it. Granted most of the weapon use is of the bow so the camerawork there is simple, but there are sword and knife fights that surmount in which this problem persists, and these scenes come with a lot of tension beforehand. The poor choice of editing evaporates this tension and leaves us feeling blank and confused.

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As I mentioned before The Hunger Games places its love story before any sense of morality and live-or-die aspects, and it overtakes the story during the latter half of the film resulting in a very confusing product. It wants to promote peace but it throws away that message to glorify these two “starcrossed lovers”, as the viewers call them. It’s unclear as to what the film was trying to do. In one hand you have a young romance, the other a sinister survival game, and they both act as oil and water, refusing to blend into each other properly. As two separate wholes they don’t work.

The Hunger Games doesn’t have the right ingredients to make you leave the theater fully engorged. If you go in wanting a love story you’ll leave feeling debilitated by the unanswered bloodshed. If you go in wanting Bear Grylls you’ll only like parts of it. If there is a second entry into the series (and I’m certain there will be) it needs to learn from the mistakes from this film. What great series like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings managed to do is make each entry an individual piece and part of a greater whole at the same time. That’s not the case here; this film relies too much on its successors to fill in the gaps. Needless to say I’m curious as to how the sequels will pan out and what sort of changes will be made. The actors for this movie are certainly strong enough for their roles and I’d like to see these characters return. As for now it’s best to appreciate The Hunger Games for what it is but hope that future installments do better.

The Hunger Games - 5/10

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