Thursday, September 25, 2014

Movie #274: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a dystopian sci-fi film, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Josh Huthcerson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, and a bunch of other people. I have not yet read the book, so I can't comment on similarities and differences, so this is just about the movie.

The country - now called Panem - is divided up into 12 districts, each of which produces something. Katniss (Lawrence) lives in District 12, the poorest district, which is analogous to Appalachia and produces coal. Katniss is bitter, but driven to help her family (mother and sister; her father died in a mining accident) survive, which she does by hunting game with her bow and selling the kills.

Every year, the government puts on a show called the Hunger Games, in which two children (ages 12 to 17) from each district are chosen at random, put in an arena, given weapons and made to fight until only one remains alive what the actual hell, Panem. The richer districts dress in crazy fashions and treat this like spectacle, whereas the outlying districts are more realistic about what the purpose of the Games is (that is, to remind you stupid fuckers of your place and make sure no one rebels). Katniss' sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen as tribute, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. She then gets a whirlwind tour of how crazy things are in the capitol, goes into the games with her District-mate Peeta (Hutcherson), who's had a crush on her since childhood, and tries to survive. She succeeds, but also winds up thumbing her nose at the government, to the point that her mentor (Harrelson), a previous Games winner, warns her that she'd better stay in line.

The movie is really good, IMO. One of the potential problems with dystopian sci-fi is when they over-explain or dumb down the world, but I think this film does a nice job of explaining what it needs to and implying the rest. The Capitol and the garish, shallow culture it engenders is well-realized, and I like that we never quite lose that sense of "wtf seriously?" when people congratulate Katniss on being the tribute, as though being brutally murdered is some kind of honor.

The fact that the movie deals with children murdering each other - with hand weapons, even - makes it a difficult sell. The death scenes are pretty effective, though I kind of feel like the scene where Katniss' friend Rue (Amandla Stenberg) dies, and Katniss kills her killer, were a little too clean. But, make it too bloody and you head for an R rating, and this is ostensibly a young adult story.

The most effective scene in the movie, for me, is one that happens on the first night of the Games. Katniss climbs a tree and sleeps there, knowing that sleeping on the ground can be fatal if the pack of "Careers" (kids trained from early childhood to compete in the Games) find her. But another tribute makes a fire, the Careers step out of the woods, cut away to Katniss, and we hear a scream. It's chilling because we just saw this pretty young girl at fire, and the next thing that happens is that another person her age murders her with a sword. (My DVD skipped that scene, but I remember it from the theater.)

It's not a happy movie, but it's a well-made one, and it's just entertaining enough to be watchable without being too heavy. I'm keen to see the finale of the trilogy this year.

My grade: A
Rewatch value: Medium-low

Next Up: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire