25 March 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES (Dir. Gary Ross, 2012, US) - Some initial thoughts

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
As I have said on many occasions before, the best science fiction films especially those which offer us a dystopian future tend to deal with the politics of class and perhaps that’s why I liked what the film was trying to do in the context of a mainstream blockbuster. Nevertheless, what I found disappointing was the lack of political context because the uprising is mentioned and lingers as backstory but is never really fully explored. The same goes for the creation of districts – which are obvious representatives of the economic divisions now prevalent in America.

Casting is king in many cases especially when it comes to big budget adaptations. Given the recent high profile failure of John Carter and the anonymous Taylor Kitsch, the producers of The Hunger Games were brave enough to cast someone more than competent in the lead role – Jennifer Lawrence. However, the same cannot be said for poor Josh Hutcherson’s abysmal one dimensional performance that recalls the droid like paralysis of Hadyen Christensen from the Star Wars films.

The Hunger Games draws from many science fiction films and even though this may go unrecognised by the target audience, it is still worthwhile isolating some useful points of reference. This includes films such as Rollerball, Logan’s Run, Death Race 2000, Metropolis, and perhaps more pertinently The Running Man and Battle Royale. The Running Man is a hardcore eighties sci fi shoot em up in which contestants are paraded on a new age reality TV show that involves them having to kill one another to stay alive – it was a gladiatorial idea which has ancient roots but one that translated successfully into the bloodbath that is Battle Royale which upped the stakes by making Japanese youth as the focus.

One of my biggest concerns with the film was yet again the length. This is an origins film and the first of three films but does this necessarily warrant a running time of 2 hours 20 min? Not really given the narrative gradually loses momentum. The first hour is quite strong and I actually enjoyed the build up more than the action itself which I thought was disappointing. The main selling point of the film is ruthless predatory games that unfold in a virtual forest but what the contest lacked was any kind of formidable nemesis for the resourceful Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Instead we have to make do with ridiculous over sized CGI attack dogs which are not scary at all.

Not having read the books, I don’t know how violent or explicit they are but yet again this is another Hollywood film that feels somewhat santisied and calculatingly manufactured so that key ingredients like sex and violence are airbrushed out of a dystopian reality – what annoyed me the most was the relative absence of blood in a contest hinged on fighting to the death. This seems to echo the way in which Hollywood action films can sometimes present us with physical conflict minus the blood. Of course, much of this has to do with the LCD.

From what I could detect from the ending, the next film is likely to get more political and if it does then it might just build on the foundations of a competent first entry in a potential franchise. Amy Taubin's recent piece in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 12) titled 'Girls Gone Wild' suggests defiant women have been central to recent films such as The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Haywire, A Dangerous Method. So perhaps we can also include The Hunger Games in this cycle of 'hard women' films.

4 comments:

  1. I haven't yet watched the film but it seems that the focus is more on less important issues than on the political undertone which is the main (symbolic) idea behind the book; in an interview, Suzanne Collins says she got the idea of the book while watching a footage of the crimes being committed in Iraq.

    So yes, the part about the attacking dogs *is* violent in the book. But there the real violence comes in Books II and III which are many, many times better than Book I.

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  2. Hi Omar

    I think I agree with you on every count. The lack of blood is I think associated with getting a 12A in the UK – I'm not sure if the US version is different? I feel ambivalent about the fact that this is marketed to 12 year-olds. It's good that they should get to see something a bit more intelligent but it's a shame that a potentially strong SF series should be 'sanitised'. After all, we already have Spielberg capable of doing that!

    I'm surprised that few people have mentioned Gary Ross and his earlier work such as Pleasantville – a very under-rated satire on US politics. Like you, I'm most interested in the dystopian SF angle and I'd throw in a few more references. The Truman Show is an important influence, I think and reality TV was something that I'm sure Phil K. Dick imagined even if it hadn't properly happened before 1982. Although not directly referenced, I'd also throw in other dystopian films such as Soylent Green and also a couple of films by Cornel Wilde (he's a bit forgotten now, isn't he?) – one he directed, No Blade of Grass (1970) and another in which he both directed and played the leading man, The Naked Prey (1966).

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  3. Hi Roy. Thanks for flagging up the additional dystopian films that are referenced. I don't think I have seen the two with Cornel Wilde and will track them down because I love a good science fiction film. Yes, the major problem for me is the 12A certificate and the way blood is simply airbrushed out of the mise en scene.

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  4. The Naked Prey is not SF but it has an interesting 'concept'. No Blade of Grass is one of the 'survivalist' SF films of the early 1970s.

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