‘The Hunger Games’ Review
A thrilling and well-made sci-fi actioner that successfully kickstarts a franchise.
Many filmmakers have attempted adapting bestselling novels in hopes of creating a blockbuster franchise akin to ‘Harry Potter’ and aside from the unfortunate success of ‘Twilight’, all of them have failed at various degrees. ‘The Hunger Games’, however, is a bonafide success. It’s a well-told story with impressive direction, heart and a great performance by Jennifer Lawrence that makes for a flawed but entertaining action adventure.
Set in a future world where North America has been divided into thirteen districts ruled by the Capitol, every year happens a deadly game titled ‘The Hunger Games’ where each district has to offer one male and female ‘tribute’ to battle it out until one survivor remains. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young determined girl who offers herself as a volunteer to protect her younger sister to be selected for the game and has to team up with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to win the championship with the help of her mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). But the game itself is much more dangerous than she thought.
Cinephiles are quick to point out the plot of ‘The Hunger Games’ is more than similar to the excellent cult classic from Japan called ‘Battle Royale’. Both films were about teenagers stranded in a location and are forced to kill each other until one survives while they are being monitored. And while there are striking similarities between them, THG feels like a much different movie with a more epic scope than that film. Here, the world is much more fleshed out and feels plausible even without scenes that dole out exposition one after another. It’s a different beast altogether and even fans of ‘Battle Royale’ (which includes me) should check it out.
Characters make all the difference, and fortunately ‘The Hunger Games’ has a very likable and strong lead character that you actually want to root for. Katniss is determined, strong-willed and is taking part in the games for a noble cause. She knows her strengths and is an underdog that you wish wins the championship. Unlike ‘Battle Royale’ where the games begin right away, there’s an entire hour of set-up here that anticipates the beginning of the game in the sense that we see the characters training and tuning themselves to the rules of the championship. We get to see the other tributes and the dynamics between them , as well as the marketing and publicity that Katniss and Peeta take part in to promote their team and get sponsors. Interview segments are particularly riveting thanks to some great writing that brings out the characters’ traits in smart ways. By the time the game is about to begin, there’s a lot at stake and everything is fleshed out very effectively with you knowing the characters that you’re rooting for. And then it begins.
The game itself feels different in tone from what you see before it and features one of the most thrilling sequences once it begins. As the horn is sounded, we’re treated to a frantic and intense sequence of mass murder that really grips you and puts you straight into the action. You would think that a PG-13 rated movie about teens killing teens has got to be dumbed down, but you’d be surprised to know how close to being R-rated the film actually feels. The trade-off? Shaky cam. Now it depends on whether you like that style of filmmaking or not, but director Gary Ross opts to use a lot of shaky cam during action scenes to intensify the brutality but also to keep the PG-13 rating while still showing quite a bit of gore. This does become irritating at a particular point during the second half where it’s quite overdone, but I was fine with it for the most part otherwise because it really did differentiate the film from being another teenage franchise that dilutes things for the masses. It was surprisingly brutal at times and it really did help the film have a daring feel even though it could have gone a lot further.
One thing that actually did irk me though – and this is most likely a part of the book itself – is how inactive Katniss was during most of the tournament as she went on top of a tree and went into hiding for hours. Sure, it’s the most realistic thing to do for the character but the movie actually spent a lot of time on her sitting around as day and night passes, rather than showing us some of the action that’s happening around her. It dents the pacing of the second half a little bit, but thankfully catches up to speed with a powerful finale which is actually emotional and has a lot of heart to it. There is a love triangle subplot in the film as well which will obviously play out further in the sequel, but it was actually well-done compared to the melodramatic one in ‘Twilight’.
But the movie would be a lot less effective without the powerhouse performance by Jennifer Lawrence. She’s excellent in the role and unlike the one-note performance by Kirsten Stewart in the Twilight saga, she actually has a range of emotions throughout the film. She looks cute but strong at the same time and fits the part perfectly, bringing a lot of emotional heft to her complex character. Notable sequences include the scene where she’s being lifted off to the game as it begins and an emotional sequence in the second half where she deals with someone’s death and it’s riveting to watch it play out. Josh Hutcherson gives a good performance but his character obviously doesn’t have enough to do here compared to Lawrence, while Liam Hemsworth is hardly in the film. Elizabeth Banks is brilliant in a quirky Helena Bonham Carter-like performance, and Woody Harrelson gives a predictably strong performance. It actually feels like all the actors in the film did care for their roles which doesn’t usually happen with big franchise films like these.
‘The Hunger Games’ successfully kick-starts a strong new franchise that doesn’t cater only to tweens but is strong enough to break out of its novel’s fanbase. It’s well-directed, strongly acted and a thrilling adventure that also has enough heart to be a memorable film despite its flaws.
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