Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

The 'Harry Potter' franchise has already found a worthy replacement. Made for die-hard fans of the book, as well as new audiences looking for a great pre-summer blockbuster.

Rated PG-13

for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens.

The Hunger Games

Sorry, folks. I’m not a reader; therefore, I am not educated in the way of The Hunger Games – but my wife is. She’s hardcore, sneaking out at midnight to buy the final book the moment it hit shelves, owning and frequently wearing an official t-shirt, visiting popular fan-made blog sites about the series and jumping at the bit for any movie-related news – casting, trailers, production stills. This devout little geek, of course, was my hot date for the Hunger Games press screening. While she loved the material, prior to seeing the movie, she was skeptical – but she ended up loving it. I, on the other hand, knew nothing about it and had low expectations, and walked away a fan. Out of the many lame currently running series, The Hunger Games is the one that I’m on board for.

There are three flaws with The Hunger Games, the first being how the movie starts. We’re quickly introduced to our teenage heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class). We see her nurturing her young sister in place of their absentee mother (which sounds familiar if you’ve seen Lawrence in Winter’s Bone), walking the littered dirt streets of their third-world town, bow hunting with the utmost precision and having a depressing conversation with her brother-like best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, The Last Song). This moody opening may excite the fans of the series; afterall, what fan of any fictional piece of art wouldn’t like to see it accurately portrayed on screen? Having no previous connection to the material, I felt this intro didn’t do anything to reel in the part of the audience that’s unfamiliar with the book. There’s nothing in the first ten minutes that will hook the new audiences, which is typically a huge red flag the tips you off that the movie that follows is bad. Fortunately, this is just a slight hiccup in The Hunger Games. The bland intro is trumped by an emotionally charged plot-unfolding scene takes place about ten minutes in.

The Hunger Games is set in distant future, but it’s not the future that any of us want to see become reality. A nation has been split up into 12 districts, each containing a different specific social class. Districts one and two are filled with the filthy rich and, in numerical order,  each district get poorer and poorer. As we can tell from the intro, Katniss’ district is the worst off. Each year, a festive gaming season takes place that is meant to connect the 12 districts, but anyone in the lower ten classes look at it as a curse. The nation holds what they call “The Hunger Games,” an all-out battle to the death where two contestant from each of the 12 districts are forced to fight in a wilderness death match arena. 24 enter, only one leaves. The players are selected at random, kind of like a lottery or “the draft.” As if the actual games don’t sound bad enough, it gets worse – the players are children. Each kid from ages 12 to 18 is entered. Once we see Katniss and her sister awaiting the drawing of names, the movie gets infinitely better than the slow beginning.

As you may have seen in the trailers, Katniss’ scrawny and small sister is selected to fight for District 12. Katniss knows that her sister won’t last long, so she volunteers to take her sister’s place and become the first volunteer from her district to ever enter in another’s stead. I dare you to not be emotionally moved by this scene.

The first half of the movie further establishes the world in which this is set. We learn about the games, how they work and how they are perceived by the nation. Katniss learns all of this from an awesome team of supporting characters played by an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge), the scene-stealing Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), the always-good Stanley Tucci (Easy A) and a suprisingly strong Lenny Kravitz (Precious) – yes, the musician.

During the second half of the film, it’s game time. Once the games begin, so does the violence. While the gore that ensues lies within the PG-13 limits, it sure gets close to crossing the line into R. Unlike the parents who bring their pre-teen daughters into the Twilight movies, I suggest only allowing your teenage kids to see The Hunger Games. Even then, some parents are going to be angry at what is shown – but what kids read in the books is far more graphic than what is portrayed on screen. Most of the fatal blows take place off screen, but you can see the effects of them on screen (i.e., dead bodies, bloody weapons and even some spraying blood). Parents, you have been warned.

While I love the violent stuff (Who doesn’t? It’s intense!), this is where my second complaint comes in. As with most movies adapted from books with huge fanbases, the filmmakers have stayed as close to the source material as possible – or so my wife tells me. In doing so, the already-long movie (it’s 142 minutes long) is crammed with information. This jam-packed screenplay removes some of the connection that should exist between characters. For example, there’s one player that Katniss frequently sees, but never talks to. In one scene, this other character helps Katniss. A few scenes later, that character is killed and we see Katniss having the hardest time dealing with it. Mind you, she’s already seen a dozen kids slaughtered before her eyes. For a character that previously had two minutes of screen time, it sure didn’t bother me that she was picked off. That’s the name of the game. With only one winner, it had to happen sooner or later. For Katniss, because the two only spent a few moments together, it makes no sense as to why she’s so torn up. This is just one example of this disconnection taking place. It happens with several other characters too.

So, what’s the third complaint? Special effects. 99 percent of the movie looks like it was made with an unlimited budget. The Hunger Games is visually amazing – with the exception of one effect. At one point in the games, dog-like beasts are unleashed in the arena to create some extra danger. These CG creatures highly resemble the demon dog monster in Ghostbusters that crashes the Rick Moranis’ party. Lions Gate is far from being a powerhouse, so I image their budget was restricted – much like Summit Entertainment when they made the first Twilight. Hopefully, like Summit, the huge box office success of The Hunger Games will give them a lot more dough to put into the next three Hunger Games movies so that we don’t see cheesy effects again.

I loved the Harry Potter series. I was sad to see it end. A worthy franchise replacement hasn’t shown its head – until now. Like the majority of the Potter films, I consider The Hunger Games a solid film. It’s exceptionally well made, as well as entertaining. As much as I thought I was going to despise it (mostly because it’s based on a book series aimed at teens), I loved it. Having no idea where the series is going, I cannot wait for the next installment. Fans of the books and newcomers alike are going to love this series. Get out there and see it this weekend – that is, if you already have a ticket. If you haven’t bought your ticket yet, “may the odd be ever in your favor.”

Photo credit: Lions Gate

4 out of 5

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