Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Hunger Games / ** (2012)

Of all the young new heroes that populate modern literature, I can’t imagine many readers wanting to step into the shoes of Katniss Everdeen. To imagine how long it must have taken her to develop such a resigned outward demeanor in a universe as bleak as “The Hunger Games” is discouraging; stoic and deadpan in her own circumscribed existence, she creates an identity of unspeakable wounds, and becomes the hopeful face of a generation of oppressed prisoners not out of coincidence, but from an act of sacrifice that is taken (at least in the poverty class) as a reawakening of human will. To live in a world as wildly fascist as that of hers is to see the unrestrained influence of a far-reaching dictatorship, and when Suzanne Collins wrote the novel that this movie is based on, it was clear that her influences included, among other things, the German occupation of Europe during the second World War (where the concept of ghettos and concentration camps essentially found definition). Her points may very well be sound education for their intended audiences; to see them visualized in a very ambitious movie, and in the skin of a youthful fantasy entertainment, it wobbles on a divisive tightrope that left me with an alarming sense of unease.

The early fantasies all dealt with a similar thread of admission: the weak and oppressed are driven to action in the face of corrupt kingdoms, most of which are brought to their knees by a single voice that emerges in the crowd. As a device that drove the narratives of the likes of Tolkien, Bradbury and even Asimov, it inspired writers who saw their parables (directly or not) as allegories about the influence of industry and government in the development of the world. From their eyes, common people were the victims of influences they could not comprehend. Eventually the mindset passed down to the younger generations, and under the impact of new (and bleaker) world events the content of the endeavors developed a cynicism that was almost suffocating. The existence of “The Hunger Games,” a story about how kids are sacrificed like gladiators for sport to preserve a class system, exemplifies how far the trend has reached – now in the hands of young adults, it plays like a warning sign against the path we are all travelling down, even from an early age. But is this really the road we should be exploring when youth is the time to be inspiring wonder instead of fear?

Having not read the source material, I base an analysis entirely on what is seen on screen. The movie begins with a brief introduction explaining the rules: after a failed resistance against “The Capital” over 70 years prior, the low ends of society are divided into 13 districts, and each sacrifices two of their youth (one male, one female) every year to collectively fight to the death in an arena in front of cameras – a tactic that is, I guess, used to keep the impoverished sorts in check after their failed attempt at overthrowing a fascist empire. This particular event, dubbed the “Hunger Games,” plays like a gathering of all the negative human principles of primitive cultures; like the times of the Romans, audiences devour violence with unrelenting enthusiasm and seem intoxicated by the sight of blood, making the games a particularly inspiring event for their desensitized eyes. The movie emphasizes their tainted value system by conveying it in a display of bizarre indulgence; their colorful makeup and costumes are absurd to a fault, and they wander through spaces like mindless spectators paralyzed in horrific smiles, as if borrowed from the frames of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

But never mind. The hero of the movie, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), is a resident of District 12 who rises to prominence when, in a selfless act of defiance, she volunteers to be one of the Hunger Games’ “tributes” in order to spare her younger sister, whose name is drawn from the directory. What that means, alas, is that she will be one of 24 fighters who will be led to the Capital, paraded around like a glamorized competitor, and then forced to partake in a battle of wits (and weapons) that will ultimately result in her murder (or, in the best case scenario, the murder of 23 others). The gravity of that final twist weighs heavily on every one of the eventual contestants, but the movie supplies them with temporary distractions. When Katniss and her fellow District 12 competitor, the nervous Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) make landing within the Capital, they are encouraged to make allies: with fellow competitors as well as with residents of the city, who could become key sponsors that assist them along the way to victory. Their fearful naivety is contrasted by the presence of Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games victor who has been hired on to be their consultant. His advice, needless to say, contains all the conventional traces of a survivor resolved to world pessimism; he sees the games exactly as what they are – an unwarranted bloodbath on innocent children – but offers honesty and encouragement behind a veneer of weariness: to find success, as in all things, a tribute must come across as a likeable personality, and not just a capable athlete.

That the young actors are often brilliant in their portrayals adds weight the material’s seriousness. Lawrence, an emerging talent in American cinema, is not your run-of-the-mill stand-in who shouts dialogue as if to emphasize tension; she is as concentrated as any credible actor could be in the role, and her Katniss is delivered with all the facets of human sensibility that are necessary in informing the story’s perspective. Josh Hutcherson does equally good work as her counterpart; Peeta is more or less an unknowing victim along for a ride towards certain death, but he intercuts that acknowledgment with surface enthusiasm, even while the eyes occupy a defeatist sensibility. Elizabeth Banks as an overdressed Capital consort named Effie does credible work in exemplifying the rude luxury of a superficial upper class, and Lenny Kravitz, who plays a costume designer/consort for Katniss and Peeta, is remarkably cogent as a man who follows all the rules of the game, and yet resolves to care for his tributes even though odds are he will ever see them alive again.

The technical elements of the film are astonishing – not used for the sake of gloss or polish, either, but to add credence to the notion that these outlandish qualities are, in fact, part of a genuine society. The production design by Phillip Messina (“Traffic,” “Solaris”) is so impeccable in its detail that the spaces are almost too vast for comfort, and in the span of two hours he manages to make you believe you can go from a poverty-stricken ghetto right into an immense city of architectural dreaminess with little dissonance. The cinematography, meanwhile, captures the material in shots that are refreshingly broad and focused, and the movie is not edited in that obligatory swift-motion technique that takes away from the clarity of the action; it is strategic enough to leave you with necessary suggestions without cutting too swiftly between shots. That all of this is brought to a dynamic unison by a focused screenplay and directing style intensifies the admiration; Gary Ross, whose first film, “Pleasantville,” remains one of the most original masterpieces I have ever seen, has a drive here that is distinct and original, and he bases it on source material that doesn’t just paint its subjects in formulaic strokes. The synergy shared between he and his writers is an elusive quality, especially in context with where Hollywood’s mind is at on the assembly line of action pictures.

And yet as we watch on, marveled by the depth of the ideas and bewildered by the undeniable production values, the movie leaves us with an aftertaste of impossible measure. As insightful as the premise hopes to be, none of it manifests into a single cohesive message, and the brutal approach of the subject matter is anchored by a tone so unfathomably depressing that it makes the abuse going on in “District 9” look like a frat-house initiation. In some round-about way, this is all part of the broad intention; to know where the line is, after all, a storyteller usually has to dance on it. But at what point do we have to be taken before filmmakers realize that messages are more resonating when they are used to a tangible perspective instead of as scare tactics? “The Hunger Games” has all the technical ingredients of a great (and even important) film, but sideswipes them in order to leave the audience feeling like that they have been abandoned in the wilderness of extreme cruelty. Here is a movie that is way too masochistic for its own good.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Adventure (US); 2012; Rated PG-13 for; Running Time: 142 Minutes

Jennifer Lawrence: Katniss Everdeen
Josh Hutcherson: Peeta Mellark
Woody Harrelson: Haymitch Abernathy
Elizabeth Banks: Effie Trinket
Stanley Tucci: Caesar Flickerman
Wes Bentley: Seneca Crane
Lenny Kravitz: Cinna
Donald Sutherland: President Snow

Produced by Diana Alvarez, Robin Bissell, Martin Cohen, Suzanne Collins, Chantal Feghali, Nina Jacobson, John Kilik, Michael Paseornek, Louis Phillips, Aldric La’auli Porter, Louise Rosner-Meyer and Bryan Unkeless; Directed by Gary Ross; Written by Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray and Gary Ross; based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

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