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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for Event Movies, and thank God for it - great cinema is nice and all, but there's something to be said for the sort of ginormous popular hit that everybody's excited to see and excited after they see it, and mostly people like it even if some people like it a lot more than others, and we can all talk about it at parties and such. Movies that are cultural moments that everybody needs to have an opinion about, I mean, and not just movies that are two hours of more or less disposable entertainment. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 certainly acted like one of these, but I think the sheer monolithic fact of the Harry Potter franchise sucked away some of the novelty; no, by my reckoning we have to go back to Avatar to find the sort of Event I'm thinking of.

My point being, we have no fewer than four such movies coming out in 2012, of which the first has just landed with a $211 million worldwide bang. I am referring, for the benefit of those living under a rock, to The Hunger Games, adapted from the first book in Suzanne Collins's young adult trilogy of thrillers set in a dystopian future. The books sold altogether well, but even that's not enough to explain the size of the splash the film made; even my notion that we as a filmgoing society have been starved for a big tentpole that isn't based on a superhero comic or an action figure for a geological epoch in pop culture time can't start to explain a number like that. But the point being: we are now living in the Hunger Games Moment, and will do so for at least a little while, and I take a considerable amount of nostalgic comfort in that thought.

It's all enough to make the movie at the center of it all seem a bit beside the point, but that is, after all, why we are gathered here. The first principle to be dealt with is the question on the mind of a thousand thousand adolescents and tweens: and no, The Hunger Games is not as good as the book. I am doubtful that it could ever, in any realistic circumstances, meet that bar, not only because Collins's novel is awfully damn good, but because of the particular ways in which it is good. For starters, the most salient element of style in the novel is that it's written in the first-person present tense, a startling and exciting decision in prose but largely redundant in film, which is already, by its nature, a present tense storytelling medium. After which, the screenwriters (Collins herself, along with Billy Ray and director Gary Ross) deal with the book's teeming exposition by nestling it in sequences that violate a strict first-person POV. In other words, merely by existing, this movie Hunger Games has already been obliged to compromise the effect of the book, and that's without touching on how it largely eschews the sociology of Collins's original, or its psychological complexity, or even its tonal nastiness.

That said, the movie on its own terms is an entirely likable thriller, if a bit light on intelligence and personality - but then, this was always the danger once Ross came on board as a director; he is notable more for making entirely fine movies than particularly good movies (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit make up the other two legs of his directorial canon), and in this context, it was pretty clear that his involvement represented a desire to not seriously fuck anything up than to provide a real directorial personality. He's not quite as anonymous and shallow as Chris Columbus was behind the camera of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, so let us at least be grateful for that.

The film takes place long enough in the future that North America has degenerated into a nation called "Panem", twelve rural/industrial districts ruled by the iron fist of a central capitol, whose primary external sign of power is the annual Hunger Games, a televised deathmatch in which 24 persons between 12 and 18 years of age - one girl and one boy from each district - enter an arena and don't leave until only one person is still alive. In this, the 74th Hunger Games, District 12 - the mining center that was once Appalachia - sends a stone-cold 16-year-old hunter named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers to saver her 12-year-old sister, and infinitely less stone-cold 16-year-old baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, a profoundly vanilla-flavored young actor who officially as of now has the best agent in the history of cinema). It's more of a fable, really, than an actual narrative; when you sit down and actually work out how much happens in the story, it seems faintly ludicrous that it stretches out to 2 hours and 22 minutes. And yet there's never really any lag, mostly because of how successfully the filmmakers dramatise the process of preparing for the Games, and then because survivalist action cinema is pretty damn hard to screw up, certainly if one is as blithely competent as Gary Ross.

Theoretically, this is a commentary on an America dulled by reality television, as well as a parable for the age of the 99%, though cautiously denuded of politics just enough that both Tea Partiers and Marxists can see "their" side in Katniss. In practice, the book was already a bit less willing to scurry down that rabbit hole than it could have been, and the movie scales things back even farther: there's simply not enough time to cover everything required to leave a coherent plot (which is only barely done: it passes the test that Harry Potter largely failed for functioning as a stand-alone narrative, though a few details are glossed over or not explained at all), and the cultural context of the material, as well as the psychology of anyone who isn't Katniss, is the first victim of compression; even Katniss herself is more of a reactive than an active hero in this version of the scenario, though an extraordinarily well-cast Jennifer Lawrence, essentially reprising her Winter's Bone character relocated to The Running Man, plays up Katniss's hard edges enough that she seems to be stronger than is necessarily the case on-paper. Lawrence isn't entirely alone in giving a good performance - the cast is too well-stocked with fey Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones and icy Donald Sutherland and heavily made-up Wes Bentley for that to be the case, though only Elizabeth Banks as an outwardly venal but obviously rattled Capitol lackey really wowed me - but the film does live or die based on the performance she gives, so it's lucky for all concerned that she's as marvelously granite as is the case.

What makes The Hunger Games really click, though, has nothing to do with its script or ideas or characters (which is a shame), but with its terrific world-building in the first act, and some really excellent action directing in the second. To start with, the film is a marvel of design: the costumes, make-up, and set design all work in perfect tandem to describe a society contrasted between the grimy, worn-out Appalachian hell of District 12, and the tacky Capitol, an effectively unimprovable depiction of a culture that has rotted on its own decadence to the point that only increased circus-like showmanship can possibly impress anybody. Post-apocalypse and dystopian films have been playing the "In the totalitarian future, everyone is a low-class drag queen" card since at least Mad Max 2, but rarely if ever has that approach been so suited to the future world being depicted as it is here.

As for the film's treatment of the Hunger Games themselves, it's a more than credible example PG-13 action that only occasionally yearns to be more violent - I have seen people making the same complaint and then admit that they're being just a prurient as the sick folks of the Capitol, but I'd counter that the more nauseating and harsh violence in cinema is, the more we feel it, and the harder it is to watch; as exhibit A, there is a certain character's death-by-spear that literally made me put the book down for a moment because it was so upsetting, and in the film is just sanitised enough to not really register - but is mostly quite brutal and grim, doing right by the book while impressing upon the viewer the gravity and danger of what we're watching. Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern use a hard, contrasty style marked with lots and lots (and lots and lots) of hand-held camerawork, and in the beginning, when there is not lots of death and mayhem going on, I wanted to scream a little bit for it to stop. But then we get to the part where it actually works to amp up the sense of danger and confusion, and though it is by no means the part of the story that best deserves highlighting, there's no question that the film does an excellent job of bringing the Games themselves to grueling life.

None of this leads us up to, "and that's why it's a great movie!", because it's not. It's a divertissement laced with just enough acid that it feels like there's something deeper to it than is the case in the hard light of day. But it is a nifty thriller, entertaining without feeling particularly stupid, and it looks terrific. That might not be worth a record-setting box-office take, but franchises have started from worse places.

6/10

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