Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

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Movie Review                                                                                                             23/3/12
THE HUNGER GAMES
(2012)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Directed by: Gary Ross
Lionsgate/Color Force
          
  It was inevitable that Suzanne Collins’ 2008 best-selling and critically-acclaimed novel would receive the big-screen adaptation treatment. After all, it was a formula that worked out well for the Harry Potter books, and the vampire-love-story-that-must-not-be-named (though not so well for my favourite young adult series, the Alex Rider books). I have not read the book (blasphemy, I know), but will review the film based on its merits as a, well, film. And, possess many merits it does.

            For the uninitiated, the titular “games” refer to an annual tournament in which the 12 districts of Panem, a dystopian, future America, send one boy and girl aged 12-18 (known as “tributes”), chosen by ballot, to battle in a brutal televised death match, until the lone survivor is crowned the victor. The story centres on the two tributes from the poor coal-mining colony of District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), Katniss having volunteered to save her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) from being sent to the games and Peeta a baker’s son who nurses an unrequited crush on Katniss. Back home is Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth), Katniss’ best friend, hunting partner, and the hypotenuse in a developing love triangle.

            The film hinges on themes such as the class divide, oppressive governments, the voyeuristic thirst for reality TV-style entertainment, survival and independence, while serving as a coming-of-age story too. This is heavy political commentary dressed up in a fantastic metaphor, and something that the film is generally very successful at conveying, though it lacks the sharper and more subtle observation of such classics as Brave New World and 1984, settling instead for something more accessible to the masses.

            And then there’s of course the controversial hot-button issue of kids killing kids. To reduce the story to just that is something of an injustice, and apparently the movie has toned the violence down quite a bit from the source material to keep with a PG-13 rating (and so as not to alienate its youthful fanbase), but it still is pretty gnarly to watch teenagers getting stabbed and shot at with arrows by their peers. One must bear in mind that this is hardly uncharted territory though – the 1999 Koushun Takami novel Battle Royale, which Collins claims to have never heard of until after turning in her book, comes to mind.

            Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for her role in Winter’s Bone, beating out the likes of Chloe Moretz, Hailee Steinfeld, Saorise Ronan and Shailene Woodley (and practically every teenage-or-thereabouts actress in Hollywood) for the role, brings Katniss to life as one of the strongest female protagonists of our generation. Handy with a bow and arrow, she is quietly strong yet appealingly vulnerable. Josh Hutcherson, proving himself to be one of the finest young male actors currently working, lends his square jaw and slightly stocky frame to the youthful masculinity of Peeta, and it is interesting to see the relationship between him and Katniss develop. Liam Hemsworth doesn’t have much to do in this one, appearing mainly when we cut to Gale looking pained that Katniss seems to be falling for someone else. This is probably for the better as Hutcherson is clearly the superior actor.

            Something this movie gets very right, as did the Harry Potter films, is assembling a stellar supporting cast of older characters who frame the story and pull the strings. There’s Elizabeth Banks as flamboyant chaperone Effie Trinket, Stanley Tucci as charismatic emcee Caesar Flickerman, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ kind and nurturing stylist Cinna, and Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the autocratic ruler of Panem whose distinguished demeanour belies a dangerous sadistic streak.

            The standout though is Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, a former winner of the Games who has degenerated into a scruffy alcoholic, and is responsible for mentoring Katniss and Peeta. Harrelson deftly portrays the bitterness left over from the trauma of the games and proves to be savvy and strategic. A brief scene depicts him hob-nobbing with the elite to earn Katniss “sponsors” to provide her with supplies during the games, and he suggests playing up the romantic aspect of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship as good entertainment – much like how many authors use romance to manipulate their audiences.

            The Hunger Games shows up its teeny-bopper ilk with panache, and is one of the few modern films aimed at a teenage demographic that has any depth or substance. A captivating visual look, strong performances, an engrossing story and a dash of the unsettling turn the odds in favour of this one. I know I should save this for the review of the second film, but The Hunger Games is on fire.

SUMMARY: The Hunger Games proves it fully deserves to the next big thing. By turns entertaining and thought-provoking, it is refreshing to see a franchise flick give teenagers something to chew on at the movies other than their popcorn.

RATING: 4/5 STARS

Jedd Jong Yue
           

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