First it was the coliseum. Then it was jousting. Now it’s The Hunger Games. Death match movies, like Running Man, Battle Royale and Rollerball, play on the innate human desire to watch people die in cruel and unusual ways. This includes my particular favourite, the 2007 Stone Cold Steve Austin vehicle The Condemned, where a bunch of hardened criminales fight to the death in Central America… anyway. The object is simple. Kill everyone. You win. But it seems that no one ever simply obeys the rules and they start getting all moral and emotional about what should be a simple task.
And so begins The Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic USA is divided up into 12 districts. A male and female representative from each are selected in a “reaving”, then primped, preened, fed, trained and sent to battle. Twenty four teenagers enter the arena, one person leaves. But Katniss Everdeen, the coal miner’s daughter, has skillz. Ninja skillz. The first scenes establish how good she is at hunting, archery and finding good looking men in the forest. The rest of the scenes show how awesome those ninja skillz are and how compassionate she is not to use those skillz on everyone in sight.
While the premise is a variation on a theme (kill everyone, you win), the film also deals with the role of the media in a totalitarian state. As a man with big hair says, “This is a TV show.”
Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss adds a gravity that would not be present had a Hollywood starlet been cast. Fresh off her oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, in which a young woman also struggles for survival in a harsh landscape, Lawrence never overplays the role. Teenage girls will swoon and sigh at the two male leads, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, as they both bravely deal with the game of death in different ways.
Woody Harrelson cuts a fine figure as the drunk mentor and has some of the more laughable moments in the film, as much as you can laugh in a film where people are constantly trying to kill each other. Fashion stylist Lenny Kravitz looks like he got lost halfway through the chorus of American Woman and found himself in the future wearing gold eyeliner. And Donald Sutherland is always Donald Sutherland, gruff, presidential and Donald Sutherlandish.
Fans of the book will be pleased with the almost identical adaptation. The Avox girl has been left out, as has Katniss’ school friend. But in sticking so closely to the source material, viewers don’t gain anything new from watching the film. The only additional scenes are some cutaways of the districts as they wait for their children to be slaughtered and essential character building for President Donald Sutherland.
The Hunger Games‘ biggest distraction is the constant use of wobblycam. Is it too much to ask for some well constructed action scenes without getting sea sick? Curse you Michael Bay! There is something to be said for Jackie Chan action films. He knows how to stick the camera in one spot so we can actually see that great roundhouse kick someone took to the face. Not so with The Hunger Games. In the dystopian future, no one owns a tripod.
Where Battle Royale captured the Lord of the Flies + Japanese schoolgirl atmosphere, The Hunger Games loses some of its tension in order to keep a PG rating. Battle Royale is the superior film, with it’s Tarantino-like plot and incredible fight scenes, but you can’t really show an R rated film to a bunch of bored thirteen year olds in English class without getting fired. And so The Hunger Games fills the void for a death match film suitable for younger audiences.
In a recent survey I conducted with five Korean school students, they enjoyed The Hunger Games because of the “Everyone Die Die”. Which pretty much sums up why you should go and see it. Now to the objective. Kill everyone. You win.