Tuesday, March 27, 2012
MOVIE REVIEW: THE HUNGER GAMES
By Melissa Grey
I readily admit that it took two viewings of The Hunger Games for me to be able to parse my feelings and translate them into something coherent. As a loyal fan of Suzanne Collins’ spectacularly fast-paced, blood-soaked, heart-wrenching trilogy, I had high expectations for director Gary Ross’ film. And I was not disappointed. While watching The Hunger Games, I was at times devastated, exhilarated, and disturbed but never, ever disappointed.
If you have not yet seen The Hunger Games, I suggest you turn back now, as there will be spoilers ahead. Even if you’ve read the books, there will be discussion of scenes added specifically for the film.
The Hunger Games starts with a bang, or rather a scream. The very first scene shows Gamemaker Seneca Crane (a fantastically bearded Wes Bentley) being interviewed by Games host Ceasar Flickerman (an impeccable, blue-haired Stanley Tucci). With nearly sociopathic calm, Seneca extolls the virtues of The Hunger Games, an annual event that pits children against each other in gladiator-style combat. “They’re how we heal,” Seneca says, referring to the failed rebellion 74 years prior that led to the creation of The Hunger Games. When, with a wordless scream, the scene abruptly cuts to District 12, looking more like a Walker Evans photograph than the shining, rainbow-colored Capitol, we get the sense that he isn’t talking about the people who live here.
It is the day of The Reaping, when one boy and one girl will be randomly chosen as tributes to be sent to the Capitol to fight to the death. In the books, Katniss’ inner monologue reveals that in District 12, the word “tribute” is basically synonymous with “corpse.” It is a solemn day and Gary Ross and director of photography Tom Stern have expertly captured the coal-dusted despair of District 12 with contrasting shots of the Seam’s perpetually filthy, underfed citizens and the Capitol-deployed, immaculately white-clad Peacekeepers.
The screamer is Katniss’ younger sister Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) and her nightmare – that her name is chosen at The Reaping – proves to be prophetic. As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) takes her in her arms and promises that Prim is unlikely to be picked, her words echo with foreboding. During a tranquil trip into the forest, we meet Katniss’ best friend Gale Hawthorne (a questionably cast Liam Hemsworth) but are quickly ripped from our woodsy reverie by a hovercraft flying overheard, its futuristic appearance is in stark contrast to the grim District 12, where not even the electric border fence is operational.
The hovercraft’s passenger is the tributes’ escort, Effie Trinket, played by a pitch-perfect Elizabeth Banks in towering wigs more suited to the court of Versailles than District 12. As Effie totters precariously over poorly paved streets in her sky-high heels, wrinkling her nose as though she’s smelled something rotten, the disparity between Districts and Capitol is once again driven home.
As The Reaping commences, the spare background music fades into silence and all we are left with is the sound of frightened children queuing to their potential demise. It isn’t just the flagrant abuse of the shaky cam that disorients us. The eerie quiet adds a surreal air to the proceedings. We’re treated to an almost hysterically inappropriate propaganda film that attempts to convince viewers that the Games are for the greater good. As the camera pans over the pinched and pale faces of the assembled crowd, we see that no one is buying it.
When Effie pulls Prim’s name from the bowl of folded papers, the crowd around Prim clears as though her new status as tribute could be contagious. Though the film employs no temporal tricks, it feels as though time has slowed down. Guided by Peacekeepers twice her size, Prim is led to the stage like a lamb to the slaughter.
As the camera switches to the look of absolute, abject horror on her sister’s face, our chests tighten, tears sting our eyes and we are there with her. When Katniss screams “I volunteer!” it isn’t calculated. It isn’t a conscious decision. It is not a matter of courage or cowardice. It is simply desperation. To volunteer is to meet an almost certain death and in that moment, it is the only thing Katniss can do. There are no other options. There is only a scared little girl and the sister who will do anything to protect her. Her selflessness is recognized in a minor act of rebellion – when Effie calls for a round of applause for District 12’s very first volunteer, its citizens raise a silent salute to Katniss. In a masterful bit of acting from Jennifer Lawrence, tears appear to cloud Katniss’ vision but never fall.
Peeta Mellark, flawlessly embodied by Josh Hutcherson, is not so lucky. Though he has brothers, no one volunteers for him. As he is led, in dumb-founded silence, to the stage, Katniss has flashbacks to the time Peeta’s generosity saved her life. Not only will she be forced into an arena to be slaughtered but she will also be pitted against the boy to whom she owes her family’s survival. The odds, it would seem, were never in her favor.
The relentless pacing of the Reaping continues as Katniss and Peeta are led to the train waiting to whisk them to the Capitol. As Effie prattles on, hopelessly oblivious to the human tragedy surrounding her, Peeta is unable to fight the tears that have been threatening to spill since his name was called. As Josh Hutcherson’s face crumbles, almost in slow motion, your heart breaks for him. The moment is even stronger in contrast to Jennifer Lawrence’s stoic silence.
Upon arriving, the grandeur of their surroundings overwhelms both tributes and viewers as the camera leads us on to the train where a spread of food, unlike anything ever seen in District 12, awaits. When we finally meet Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), District 12’s only surviving victor, the smell of alcohol practically floats through the screen.
After a brief and fruitless conversation with Haymitch and Peeta, Katniss finds herself alone on the train. As Jennifer Lawrence looks around at the opulent interior of the dining carriage, she seems to shrink into herself. We catch a glimpse of the child Katniss never got to be. She is not the brave, selfless hero of the Reaping. For a brief moment, she is simply a frightened and overwhelmed sixteen-year-old girl in an impossible situation. The subtlety of Lawrence’s acting lends an air of quiet dignity to Katniss’ demeanor while still allowing us to see the cracks in her armor, however well concealed they might be.
From here, the film lunges forward at breakneck speed as the tributes are primped, polished, and presented to Capitol citizens who more closely resemble tropical birds than humans. As the crowd cheers for the blood of these children, presented as a 24 hour cycle of pain and death, the viewer is uncomfortably reminded of our own culture’s obsession with the public degradation of humanity that is reality television. Throughout it all, Katniss fights to retain her dignity. During a particularly memorable scene, Katniss fires an arrow straight towards the Gamemakers, meeting Seneca Crane’s startled eyes with her own steely gaze. The fire in Jennifer Lawrence’s eyes reminds us that while she may play their games, she will never be just a pawn.
Lenny Kravitz, as Katniss’ stylist Cinna, provides us with a lone source of compassion amidst the made-for-television slaughter. When he offers his condolences in place of congratulations, Katniss’ lips quirk in the barest hint of a smile as realizes that she may have found an ally in the Capitol. Jennifer Lawrence so effectively carries the weight of the world on her shoulders that when she smiles at Cinna, it’s surprising to see that it reaches her eyes. It is so unlike the plastered-on grins she wears during her live interview with Tucci’s Ceasar Flickerman and it is a testament to the depth of Lawrence’s performance.
The glitz and glamour of the Capitol are short lived as the tributes are brought to the arena where 23 of them are meant to die. After Katniss steps onto the platform that will raise her into the arena, its door seals around her and all sound is lost in an unnerving vacuum of silence. For another brief moment, we see the scared young girl from the train. With a full-screen whiteout, we are brought into the arena. The Games have begun and as the scene switches from the Captiol to the tense silence of District 12, we know that there will be no winners here, no matter who is crowned victor.
The pulse-pounding chaos of the bloody massace at the Cornucopia sets the tone for the rest of the movie. As Katniss runs for her life, the Gamemakers, led by a ruthless Seneca Crane throw a series of obstacles at her, including an impressive array of fireballs. The sleek and sterile control room is a startling contrast to the blood-soaked greenery of the arena.
During the course of the Games, Katniss makes both friends and enemies as she is targeted by a ruthless band of volunteer tributes from the wealthier districts. Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the little girl from District 11, is an unlikely ally whose tragic death acts as the catalyst for a riot in her home district. When Katniss salutes the fallen Rue and the people of District 11, a spark of rebellion ignites a fire that will continue to burn for the next 3 movies (the final installment in the trilogy, Mockingjay, will be divided into two films).
The true strength of The Hunger Games lies in what remains unspoken. Jennifer Lawrence, an actress whose subtle style of acting earned her an Academy Award nomination for Winter’s Bone, brings Katniss’ quiet resilience to life. Cradling Rue’s body in her arms, she raises her gaze to the omnipresent cameras, eyes as hard as diamond and smoldering like the coals of District 12. It is one of the film’s most self-aware moments. Katniss’ eyes are looking into the Gamemakers’ cameras, but also into ours. She dares us to find this grim spectacle entertaining. And the undeniable horror of it is that we do.
Jennifer Lawrence earns her pay in blood and tears and her co-star Josh Hutcherson proves to be her match. Though the screenplay doesn’t allow for as much uncertainty regarding Peeta’s motivations throughout the Games, the heart of the character remains true. Hutcherson’s Peeta is by turns cheerful, contemplative, heartbroken, and determined. When it is revealed that there can only be one victor, Peeta reaches out to ever so lightly caress Katniss’ braid before swallowing the berries he knows will kill them both. As Katniss gazes upward, Peeta’s eyes remain locked on her as if trying to memorize every last feature of the girl he has loved for so long. This dynamic is repeated when the victors return home. While Katniss looks for Prim and Gale in the waiting crowd, Peeta has eyes only for her. His realization that her behavior was mere strategy is a silent one, but if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of his heart breaking. In the space of a few seconds, Hutcherson manages to imbue Peeta’s tiny stolen moments with all the force of young love lost.
No less remarkable are the performances from Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks. Though they aren’t given much screen time, they strike gold with the moments they do have. Banks’ Effie is a particular treat as she flounces around with an almost nauseating obliviousness. In the film’s first act, Banks provides nearly all of the comic relief. When Katniss, angered by Haymitch’s apparent apathy, impetuously stabs a knife into a fine wooden table, Effie’s shrill “That. Is. Mahogany!” is one of the rare moments when the filmmakers allow the viewer to crack a smile without feeling guilty about it.
Harrelson’s liquor-soaked Haymitch is an excellent foil to the effusively sunny Effie. As the victor of the 50th Hunger Games, Haymitch has, at this point, sent over 40 children to their deaths. Although he’s spent the past two decades trying to drown their ghosts, he manages to crawl out of the bottle long enough to hustle the Capitol audience and find sponsors to send life-saving supplies to Katniss in the arena. Haymitch’s eyes drip with disdain as he watches Capitol-born children chase each other around with toy swords while District teens are being slaughtered in the arena. With only a handful of scenes, Harrelson delivers a performance that reveals the depth of Haymitch’s sorrows and the fragility of his hopes.
The Hunger Games remains remarkably true to the books though the scenes created specifically for the movie keep the spirit of the novel alive while fleshing out the narrative outside of the arena. Occasional forays back to District 12 offer glimpses of the people Katniss has left behind. As Peeta and Katniss gravitate towards one another, Liam Hemsworth’s Gale averts his eyes from the screen, unable to watch his best friend get further away from him in a way that has nothing to do with geography. Katniss’ mother watches the screen while her daughter watches her. Katniss was the glue that held the Everdeen family together and without her, they know they will be lost.
President Snow, who makes only token appearances in the trilogy until Catching Fire, is given his fair share of screen time. Donald Sutherland serves up a formidable villain whose shrewd intelligence is his most fearsome trait. When we see him in his garden, offering Seneca Crane ominous bits of advice, you can practically smell the trace of blood and roses that hang about him like a shroud. Seneca Crane’s death, never revealed in the books, has Snow’s touch all over it. He is locked in a room, alone save for a bowl of the very same berries that saved Katniss and Peeta and disgraced the Capitol. Though we don’t see him eat them, it is clear that to dishonor the Capitol is to invite death. As President Snow watches the victors’ triumphant return to District 12, we get the feeling that the Games may have ended but the war has only just begun.
The Hunger Games is currently in theaters, with a UK rating of 12A and a US rating of PG-13 (shockingly). The sequel, Catching Fire, is due to be released in November of 2013.