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The Hunger Games Is Good Science Fiction, Lacking Some Character

The Hunger Games
Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Ross, Billy Ray, and Suzanne Collins from her novel
Lionsgate, 2012

Hard to believe, but this is only Ross’ third film behind the camera.  He made his debut with Pleasantville back in 1998, went on to great success with Seabiscuit back in 2003, and has not been back until now.

The Hunger Games, the first of Suzanne Collins trilogy, has a lot in common with The Running Man and the Japanese hit Battle Royale.  And those have a bunch in common with Logan’s Run and Rollerball.  It’s a society that we’re one sticking point away from living in.  If somehow the powers that be agreed that showing actual, graphic death on TV was permitted, we would watch a show where contestants fought to the death.  As Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) says to Katniss Everdeen (the radiant Jennifer Lawrence), “If we stopped watching, they’d end it.”  And casually, without a hint of cynicism, judgment, or anger, in a don’t-be-silly tone, Katniss remarks, “People aren’t going to stop watching.”  Yeah, no kidding.

I think we would watch more in The Running Man scenario, since the contestants are prisoners and we would be more inclined to watching “guilty” people get their punishment through entertainment.  The Hunger Games scenario breaks down like this: a long time ago 13 districts rose up in rebellion to the Capitol, and the Capitol won, destroying the 13th.  As punishment, the Capitol set up The Hunger Games, where one boy and one girl, aged 12-18, would be selected from each district to fight to the death, on TV, for the amusement of many.  In the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is picked, but Katniss volunteers as tribute to take her place.  The boy that is picked is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

Of course this is done in a strangely ceremonial atmosphere that includes military enforcement, and the way-too-happy Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, in a surprising stretch of her abilities), a Capitol escort, reads names that are essentially death sentences in a cheerful tone.  Soon, Katniss and Peeta are whisked away to a train where they meet their trainer, drunkie Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only living 12th District Hunger Games participant.  Abernathy plays a bit of politics behind-the-scenes and believes that being liked is your best weapon out in the outdoor arena, so that you win sponsors and others won’t want to kill you so easily.  We also meet Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, which means Jennifer Lawrence has played alongside Zoe Kravitz in X-Men: First Class and now her father), who is the makeup/costume artist who provides Katniss with all sorts of inspiration.

The Games appear to be run by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), but there is an elder statesman behind the scenes that really might be pulling more strings than we know, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  Crane wants entertainment, but it appears Snow wants 23 people dead at any cost, without any drama or questions.  The technical aspects of The Hunger Games remind me a lot of The Truman Show, as people play God and dream up obstacles for the contestants so that they’ll stay in line.  And there is pageantry: the talk show/entertainer/commentator is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), occasionally joined by his sidekick Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).  Flickerman serves as the nothing-wrong-here window dressing and keeps the happy train rolling, even though the Games are a deadly enterprise.

Katniss is a hunter and is very strong, but there are people from other districts who take this stuff really seriously and are always among the best.  The main antagonist in the arena is Cato (Alexander Ludwig, who a mere 5 years ago was the kid in the awful The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising).  For awhile there, the viewer might think this is all fun and games for awhile until it actually starts, and we are suddenly thrust into how serious this “game” is.  Katniss basically would rather evade and let everyone else kill each other, but she hopes Peeta can stay alive, although Peeta looks like he’s forming an alliance with some of those powerful District tributes, who want Katniss dead.  Katniss’ only real alliance is with a scared, but highly intelligent younger girl named Rue (Amandla Stenberg).  The sister-y relationship reminds me of Ripley’s motherly relationship with Newt in Aliens, and it serves the same purpose.

So this is all well done for the most part.  If I had one wish, it would have been that the characters around Katniss could have been developed better.  For instance, Cato is your typical Lord of the Flies-style Alpha male, but we don’t know what the Games mean to him or his district.  We get a small glimpse into what it means for Rue and her district, but everyone else is fodder, another brick in the wall.  And there are interesting characters thrown around who get wasted.  I also could have used a little more background on the Games themselves.  We see Katniss earn sponsors, but we only see Deus-Ex-Machina results from those sponsors.  One of the fun aspects of The Running Man is that we see audience members taking active participation in rooting for their favorite gladiators.  The wealthy society of the Capitol, the would-be sponsors, are all faceless entities, hidden behind Mozart-era wigs and makeup.  That’s probably the point, but it also distances us from the flights of humanity that they do have.

So The Games themselves needed some character.  And we needed more on the outside looking in.  Some of this probably comes from wanting to keep certain secrets until the next chapter, but I felt a little lost at times.

What makes this worthwhile overall is Jennifer Lawrence, and quite a few supporting characters that add flavor.  There is some good action and neat little touches (I like the mockingjay stuff), and generally I love this type of science fiction where society has crumbled so thoroughly that it would allow a reality show like this.  I wonder if critics from 1987 would have ever thought that we would hold The Running Man in such high esteem, but here goes: I think The Running Man is a more entertaining movie than The Hunger Games, but only because it’s goofy satire lifted by the height of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charm, stardom, and self-awareness.  Technically, The Hunger Games is the better film, but given the choice, I’d watch Running Man more.

This will make several boatloads and truckloads of cash this weekend.  Run to your nearest local theatre and donate.

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