Sunday, April 8, 2012

REVIEW: The Hunger Games (2012)

This is the newest young adult novel phenomenon, The Hunger Games, originally written by Suzanne Collins. The book was good and while the premise wasn’t anything too original, it was a solid, well done story for the young adult demographic. Now we have the movie, and it is a huge, searing epic with a ton of great things about it – I mean damn. I don’t remember being this blown away by something based on a book I had already read in a long time. The Hunger Games rules, and I am here to tell you why, so let’s do that, shall we?

Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson

The story is a dystopian tale of a world far in the future, where each year young children are randomly selected from their ‘districts’ to fight to the death in “The Hunger Games,” which is passed off as a grand and fun-filled celebration of sorts by the corrupt, spoilt “Capitol” government city. The lead character is Katniss Everdeen, who subverts the usual and volunteers to be the tribute for her district so her younger sister does not have to. She enters into a strange relationship with fellow tribute Peeta and the two have to fight off 22 others in a game for their lives.

The main reason this works so well as a movie is that The Hunger Games was a very visual story, even in the book – it required you to see a lot of the things happening to get the full effect. I’m not one to decry the power of imagination and the benefits of a good page-turning book, but the massive effect The Hunger Games movie has on the viewer is just undeniable – everything feels big. There is a big epic undercurrent here that turns this rather bleak dystopian story into a swinging, mighty hammer of destruction that will just demolish you.

The action is a full-throttle festival of mayhem that works despite the sometimes overly shaking camera, and the dramatic moments are heartfelt and truly tragic at times. At one point a character, a young child, dies, and the effect is absolutely heartbreaking in how they present the scene. I won’t spoil too much, but I always think tragic moments like these are the cornerstones of a great epic, adding much needed weight to the situation. Everything feels like it matters, and because the people making the movie were so clearly into it, you will be, too.

The acting is just great, with Jennifer Lawrence, previously of Winter’s Bone, giving one of the best lead-heroine performances I’ve seen in a movie in the last few years as Katniss. She is a kick-ass lead, tough as nails, but also capable of being kind, and endowed with certain flaws that make her human. It’s the subtleties in this performance that really make it shine, like her conversation with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) in the beginning – their relationship is very well detailed and shaded, and it feels like two very real people in the midst of something abnormal and hard to deal with.

The fact that this is a dystopian story with a highly un-relatable plot and a futuristic setting is never a deterrent to the excellent characterization, and Lawrence’s Katniss is charismatic, relatable and believable. Much better than crap like the Children of Men movie, which pretty much took the good characters from the book and dialed them way down into the background as cardboard cutouts – ugh. This is a much better dystopian-world story.

Other great performances include Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, their trainer and mentor for the games. In the book you get to see a lot more of him, but the movie makes use of his shorter screen-time very well. He is a character haunted by the past, having survived a Hunger Games some time long ago, and though he hides it a lot by drinking, you can tell he’s hurting inside. He feels desperately sorry for the two tributes and resentful toward the Capitol making them do this in the first place. One of Harrelson’s best performances in years. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is good, and he conveys the lovelorn-but-tough boy character very well, although he seemed a bit subdued at times – most of the focus was on Lawrence/Katniss a lot of the time.

The directing is pretty raw, and contains a lot of shaky-cam visuals, which I admit is a good tactic to make the whole movie seem more gritty and hard-assed. But sometimes during the really intense action scenes it gets a bit too much, and just feels like the cameraman was having a seizure in the studio. The special effects are top notch – witness the scene where the forest burns down, or the one where Peeta and Katniss ride out on their chariot, endowed in black leather and burning flames. Great stuff.

Now, of course this is a commentary on voyeurism and the blood-thirsty nature of much of today’s reality television – that much is obvious. It’s not a new message, but it’s delivered competently and the conviction with which it is presented is chilling and poignant. A lot of these scenes and characters feel so real that you will begin to feel that you shouldn’t be watching and propagating this kind of violence yourself. But the over-arching purpose is meaningful and necessary – and should not be missed.

This is a great film for its huge presence, and it makes you feel like you are literally in the middle of the battlefield. Most fantasy/sci fi movies can’t do that this well. The Hunger Games boasts brutal action, astounding acting talents from young up-and-comings, some chilling social commentary and as icing on the cake, some really wonderful visuals and special effects that make the whole thing a treat for the eyes. Hell, this was just a superb start to the “Blockbuster season,” and I can’t wait to see the sequel hopefully next year. If you like action movies or dystopian science fiction, The Hunger Games is about to rock your boat. Absolutely awesome.