THE HUNGER GAMES (Gary Ross, 2012)

With a relaxed pacing that gives ample time to establish the plot and the struggle of its main character, Gary Ross' adaptation of the smash hit novel by Suzanne Collins manages to dish out some important moral and existential issues amidst the action and the budding romance factor. However, THE HUNGER GAMES is far from perfection.

Fans will appreciate the filmmakers' adherence to the book, given that Collins co-wrote the screenplay and served as executive producer. I haven't read the book yet, but judging by what I saw onscreen, THE HUNGER GAMES has a pretty interesting material to begin with. Charles Darwin is in the works, plus a submission versus subversion contrast. The setting is a dystopian future, and the movie showcases wildly glossy and excessive hair and make-up for the rich and privileged, suggesting class division. Meanwhile, people in poor districts dress in pretty much similar clothes, as if in uniforms, and line up for the "Reaping" (where the "Tribute" is selected by lottery) as if they are headed to the gas chambers. 

The story's designated bad guy is President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who tells us the reason why there needs to be a killing contest, and why there needs to be a winner instead of just murdering all 24 people at once. "Hope" he says, and it is this hope indeed that pushes the tributes into winning the hunger games. 

Sutherland is a proven virtuoso he makes President Snow such a scary character: composed, unpredictable, yet every bit narcissistic. We all know he can do ruthless and unjust when he tortured Stallone's character in LOCK UP. Here, his ruthlessness is subdued. 

Another winning performance: Stanley Tucci. As talk show host Caesar Flickerman, Tucci is full of energy and wit, so much so that he should host the Oscars next year (and why hasn't he in the past, anyway?)

Every presence is inspired: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks (who looks like a cake in this movie) and even Lenny Kravitz lend powerful supporting roles. Liam Hemsworth, amidst the macho physique has that gentleness inside, while his rival for Jennifer Lawrence's heart, Josh Hutcherson (as Peeta Melark) has clearly gone a long way from ZATHURA and BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. Hutcherson proves here his acting chops, and may in fact be the next Tom Cruise. 

The real secret weapon of THE HUNGER GAMES? Jennifer Lawrence. The Academy-Award nominee answers the mental, physical and emotional challenges of being Katniss Everdeen, the tribute fighting not only for her life but for moral justice. Lawrence is no stranger to survival, having turned in an electrifying performance in a somewhat similar character in WINTER'S BONE. Oozing with appeal, beauty, brains, and obviously, brawn, Lawrence redefined the femme fatale for a whole new generation.

I liked the equal time given to establish the plot, and to release the arrows, so to speak. However, Ross could have used a better fight choreographer, or cinematographer, because the brawling is so nausea-inducing it is over before we even knew it. I wanted to feel every punch, or slice, or arrow hitting flesh. The camera and the editing moves too fast as if they have an appointment they are already late for. There's a difference between Jason Bourne fight scenes and boring. I don't know what happened. Tom Stern made those beautiful shots in Clint Eastwood's movies, and Stephen Mirrione did great work on Steven Soderbergh's babies. Then there's Juliette Welfling who worked on Jacques Audiard's films. How could a dream production team mess up the single most crucial element of an action movie? Or is Gary Ross (BIG, SEABISCUIT, PLEASANTVILLE) not ready yet to do action? 

What Ross succeeds to achieve instead is to translate the emotional core of the story. Katniss volunteering as tribute in place for her younger sibling Primrose gripped me in tears. The romance angle blooms quite marvelously as well, and Peeta and Katniss are so cute to observe, Edward and Bella will dread in the afterlife. There's even a ROMEO AND JULIET reference. 

There are 12 districts in the story, but the film only focuses only on District 12. I don't know about the book, or if it will be discussed on the later books, but I would have loved to learn a little bit about the other districts. THE HUNGER GAMES misses some important details on its path to achieve sympathy for Katniss. 

Rue (the young girl from District 11) is a great element though. Her presence heightens the story's focus on the horrors of using human for sport, and children for that matter.

Of course, the story (since it is a trilogy) ends on a footnote to serve as bridge for the succeeding novels. The ultimate literary aim in this kind of dystopian premise would be to bring down the system. That's how it was in Alex Proyas' DARK CITY, and in the Wachowski Brothers' THE MATRIX. 

Somewhat derivative, with traces of SURVIVOR (yes, that TV show!), THE RUNNING MAN, and most especially BATTLE ROYALE, what THE HUNGER GAMES proves is that it is quite inspired. It showcases what the Jason Statham-starrer DEATH RACE failed to do on the subject of televised violence- shy the topic away from unnecessary subplots. 

Since the novel (and as it turns out, the film) is marketed to the young adult crowd, violence is toned down. Killings edited abruptly. In my opinion, show it all. Show everything. How can a commentary on human sport and carnage be validated if we cannot see its aftermath, or feel every tear of the flesh, or blood spatter? 



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