24 children thrown together and expected to murder each other for the overall benefit of society. I’m thinking this sounds like a fairly good real world solution, never mind in movie-land. Alas, as it wouldn’t work in real life, it doesn’t really work in the cinema either. Adapted from the popular series of novels, The Hunger Games takes place in an unspecified time in the future where America no longer exists and is replaced by Panem, a series of 12 districts and the controlling upper class.
As punishment for the revolt of a now destroyed 13th district, every year a male and female tribute are selected by lottery from each district to take part in the titular Hunger Games, a gladiatorial fight to the death televised for the world to see. When her younger sisters name is pulled from the lottery, Katniss Everdeen steps in to volunteer in her stead and along with bakers boy Peeta Mellark begin their journey to the opulent capitol city and start their training under the tutelage of Woody Harrelson’s drunken mentor, himself a survivor of the games.
It all sounds pretty interesting so far, right? Sadly, no. Clocking in at almost 2 1/2 hours, it’s far too long. The actual games themselves take up around 30-45 minutes near the end, meaning the rest of the film is little more than slowly following the characters along their training, yet there’s even less of the actual training than the games. Hell, it doesn’t even have a Rocky style montage! Instead there seems to be too much time taken showing how different the high society is to the people living in the districts, be it in crazy fashions or attitude.
Although there are two protagonists, the story primarily follows Katniss with little attention given to other characters. They all do share screen time with her, but she largely looks bewildered and out of place. Which she is I grant you, but the point is obvious from as soon as she reaches the city. It doesn’t have to be hammered home. I say hammered home, but it’s more like slow cooked home instead. Katniss is a strong individual as seen in the defence of her family at the start, but she doesn’t grow as a character through the film. There’s little to no character development at all across any of the cast.
Performances are passable throughout but there’s no stand outs. Principals Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are reasonable but have little charisma. Woody Harrelson trains Katniss and Peeta, though actually has very little involvement other than a few words of wisdom here and there. Lenny Kravitz also features as sort of morale officer. He’s softly spoken and a little bit too creepy for my liking. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are both outlandish characters, but have very little to do, and Donald Sutherland appears as pretty much Donald Sutherland. I’m not entirely sure why he’s in the film at all.
Visually the film is pretty decent. There’s not a lot of CGI to be had except in the control rooms of the games television studios which is refreshing when two of the movie’s cinematic competitors are the eye candy festivals Wrath of the Titans and Battleship. The upper crust city is a shining beacon of expense and vulgarity, whereas the forest the games take place in are harsh but pretty at the same time.
An annoyance was the lack of blood and violence in the games themselves. It’s a 12A rated movie and so its an appropriate level as such, but the concept of having 24 children brutally murder each other is a mature enough idea that the filmmakers shouldn’t have needed to play down what was actually going to happen on screen. Fights are shown in a mega shaky-cam way where nothing is clear. Weapons that have been used for their intended purpose are as clean and shiny as the day they left the workshop. Other than characters sporting small wounds there’s no sign of how victims met their ends even when shown on screen. I’m not looking for limbs flying everywhere here, just some acknowledgement the audience can probably handle a little more than a bloodstain or two.
Something that really bugged me was the futuristic fashion of the elite. The proletariat in the districts are all 19th century era working class and look as such. The high and mighty embrace their wealth and power and as a result all look like absolutely ridiculous pantomime dames. It’s once again an obvious and unnecessary “see how the other half live”. There’s no explanation as to why really, so I make the assumption the designers just wanted to have a laugh. Other films have proven you can have futuristic fashions without excluding the working class from its influence. Take a look at costume design in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element for example. I found The Hunger Games high society to be jarringly absurd and it irritated me throughout.
Overall, I found The Hunger Games to be an extremely boring movie. Novel writer Suzanne Collins co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced too, so I imagine it will be quite close to the source material and so I think it probably works much better in novel form where you can use your own imagination rather than suffering from slow pacing and mediocre performances. I feel its essential that I finish this review by recommending you go and watch Japanese movie Battle Royale instead. It was made ten years ago from a novel with a very similar concept. It’s fast paced, gritty, realistic, violent, gory, shocking, and everything that The Hunger Games simply isn’t. I’ll leave both trailers here and you can make up your mind.