Rare indeed are the times I would go to watch a blockbuster film release, aimed at the teenage demographic, on opening day. Rarer still are the number of times I have watched a film surrounded by an audience less than one-third my age (usually I’m among the younger folks in attendance at the kind of films I watch). I didn’t plan to see this film on opening day (or on any subsequent day). I knew nothing about the book it’s based on or the film itself except that it was called a sci-fi (and I’m a sci-fi buff) and starred Jennifer Lawrence, who had blown me away with her performance in Winter’s Bone and whom I had identified as a major up-and-comer (looks like I was right). But I was in the neighbourhood and needed to kill a couple of hours and it was the only film playing that I was willing to pay $10 to see.
The Hunger Games is actually two films. The first half sets up the games, the second half is the games. Not surprisingly, I found the first half much more intriguing. It shows us a world where twelve districts are reminded of their attempt at revolution against the Capitol by annual games which require a teenage girl and boy chosen randomly from each district (a total of 24) to fight until there is only one survivor. The second half shows us how far this world will go to provide the kind of entertainment the TV producers think people want to see, with 24 teenagers fighting to death in a huge outdoor (or is it?) arena full of hidden cameras. This all reminded me, of course, of The Truman Show as well as a couple of Stephen King novellas (The Long Walk and The Running Man).
So was The Hunger Games worth $10 and 142 minutes of my time? The short answer is yes, but there are a lot of qualifiers. Let’s start with the bad news. Hand-held shaky camera work is not my thing (as you know). The sci-fi is lightweight at best and silly at worst, depicting a strange world that is remarkably inconsistent. But by far the worst news is all the wasted potential for thoughtful political and social satire. The insane entertainment industry (news, reality TV), the corrupt political system, the plight of the poor and the absurdity of violence are all subtly exposed, but none of it goes anywhere. It just stays in the background, where only those who want to discuss the film will look for it. As a result, the overall plot is very thin, characters don’t discuss what they should and the last half of the film is generally unsatisfying.
The good news? Jennifer Lawrence, perfectly cast, IS The Hunger Games and she does not disappoint. The score by James Newton Howard is more than acceptable. There are moments when the odd futuristic world captured my attention. AND the violence is almost always ugly, making the teenagers around me cringe. That is as it should be. When the heroine is forced to kill one of the ‘baddies’, I heard groans around me instead of cheering or sighs of satisfaction and relief, as if my fellow viewers were upset that she was forced to kill. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but at no point in the film did I sense any appreciation for the violence depicted. That is impressive and worth praise, though in the end the myth of redemptive violence always wins out.
I did find myself enjoying much of The Hunger Games and stayed engaged throughout, so I will give it a solid ***. My mug is up, but the contents could have been ever so much tastier.