Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Hunger Games - Review

Being the first in the inevitable trilogy based on Suzanne Collins' massively successful teen novels, comparisons to the increasingly abysmal Twilight films are inevitable. But unfair. Other than the fanatic tween following, deer hunting in the woods, a tricky teenage love triangle and the presence of semi-wolves, The Hunger Games is thankfully anything but Twilight.

There is more cause for reservation in the film's premise - a daring mix of Survivor, 1984, Winter’s Bone and The Truman Show, with a healthy dose of the Occupy Movement thrown in for good measure - which involves teenagers hunting and killing each other in a dystopian future.

It's far from senselessly violent, though - following a violent uprising where thirteen worker districts rebelled against the elite Capitol in a post-Apocalyptic North America, the vulnerable-feeling, but victorious, Capitol implements the "Hunger Games", an annual televised competition intended to keep the Districts in their place with a combination of intimidation and just a sliver of hope. Each year, each district must offer up one boy & one girl between 12 – 18 to fight to the death for glory, food  & supplies for their district. The Games have become the ultimate reality show for the idle Capital in which the Districts must compete whole-heartedly, simply because the stakes are so high.

Katniss Everdeen finds herself competing in the games when she volunteers to protect her sensitive younger sister. To give more away would be unfair, but suffice it to say that The Hunger Games is miles from the emo-idiocy of the Twilight series. Though the premise at times tests the limits of disbelief, it is nonetheless heartfelt, intelligent and frequently imaginative.

And, thankfully, Katniss is the polar opposite of Twilight's Bella Swan. Where Bella’s story seems to teach girls to be massively over-aware of their feelings and willing to compromise everything for the love of an emotionally underdeveloped 200 year old boy, Katniss is a genuine role model that teaches young girls that they can kick ass for the right reasons. Katniss altars the rules of the game, and possibly far more, by holding on to her humanity, compassion and selfless generosity even when she is told to preserve her own life at all costs.

Initially, Jennifer Lawrence is in very similar territory to her Oscar nominated Ree from Winter’s Bone, summoning her courage to feed and protect her younger siblings, but Katniss’s courage and defiance is far quieter and gentler than Ree's, and her journey is quite different. Somehow, though, Lawrence lets the similarity enhance, rather than dilute, the impact of her performance. She plays Katniss with a conviction and thoughtfulness that quietly draws you into Katniss’ inner world and makes you feel her journey every step of the way.

Director Gary Ross also helps elevates the film, mostly, above its teen trappings with memorable sets - from the earthy squalor of District 12 to the glitzy excesses of the Capitol, all with a slickly modern take on vintage 1950s style - smart camera work and editing that is always on the move, keeping you dizzyingly amidst the action, but cutting away right before suggestion would give way to gore, and effective performances from his cast, old and young, known and unknown, but his most important contribution is a commitment to the heart of his characters above the spectacle. Once the games begin, Katniss is never safe and the decisions she needs to make feel extremely human. Even head jock from District 1 gets a moment to be tragically human.

An intense, thoughtful thrill ride that mostly transcends its teen-lit origins and serves as a sobering reminder that it never bodes well to indulge a financial elite at the expense of the other.

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