Monday, November 16, 2015

The Hunger Games (2012) - A New Hope

The fourth and final installment of the Hunger Games film series hits theaters this week and as I often do when a series is concluding, I'm taking a look back at where it all started. The series opened in 2012 with Pleasantville/Seabiscuit director Gary Ross's explosive take on the young adult novel series, to both popular and critical acclaim. At the time, I knew of Suzanne Collins' books only in passing and from the limp internet outrage over their similarity to the Japanese cult classic Battle Royale. I only checked out the first film after seeing overwhelmingly positive reviews, and am very glad I did; in spite of fumbles in the third installment, this is the best American film serial since Star Wars.

District 12: Coal Town
There are spoilers in this review, but as the movie's been out since 2012 and the book since 2008, I'm not too concerned with hiding them.

The Hunger Games is set in Panem (a map in the second film shows it to be a slightly distorted United States), a nation divided into thirteen districts. Each district supplies The Capitol and its tyrannical despot President Snow (Donald Sutherland) with resources unique to its region; coal, wood, fish, etc. Each year, a male and a female child from each district is chosen at random as a Tribute to fight to the death in a tournament, some to bring glory to The Capitol, some out of fear or hope, some, like our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in the role that made her an international star), out of selflessness, as she volunteers in place of her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields).
Katniss reassuring Prim

This isn't a world that would really function if held up to scientific scrutiny, but that's a boring and terrible way to watch movies anyway. It's a world of allegory and subtext, some (the many Ancient Rome name drops) delightfully blunt. It's a story of both systemic and personal corruption, and of embracing lies for a just cause. No one gets out of this clean. As Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy, a one-time champion now serving as mentor to Katniss and male Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), says in the second film, "There are survivors. There's no winners." Of course, even in war there's time for love to bloom, as we see in the "who will she choose?" love triangle that develops between Katniss, Peeta, and her longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Haymitch throws down some disdain
Three clear arcs make up the film: The first follows Katniss at home in District 12 before volunteering for the Games, the second shows Katniss and Peeta adjusting to life and training in The Capitol, and the third is the Games themselves. We don't get to the Games until half-way through the film, and that works to its benefit; instead of rushing into the action, Ross allows his film to breathe. Its strength is in its pacing, strong performances by a cast both new and esteemed, the gorgeously weird aesthetic of The Capitol's fashion, and strong, boldly-colored cinematography by Tom Stern, known best for his work in films directed by Clint Eastwood.

Stanley Tucci's incredible commentator, Caesar Flickerman

Color is used wonderfully in the film both to establish characters and to create solid shot compositions. Clothing, hair, and eyes often match the colors of bold objects within the frame, giving the entire scene an organic feel; the set exists as an extension of the character. Costume designer Judianna Makovsky does a wonderful job here, with many memorably weird looks that call to mind the bizarre aesthetic of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Other subtler moments include the color choice of the Everdeen family cat, a dirty, feral, but nonetheless loved scavenger with black fur with a white patch. We first meet him as the pale-skinned Katniss, dressed all in black, prepares to hunt. Both the situation and look of Katniss and the cat draw immediate connections between the two characters. The cat is seen as a gross but lovable pet by the Everdeen family and, later, The Capitol will come to see Katniss herself the same way. Unfortunately, he's recast as an orange tabby in the still strong but less visually striking sequel.

Two pieces of Capitol property
Effie (Elizabeth Banks) feebly presides over a team meeting
A faded Katniss contrasts with a regal set
In addition to strong performances by Lawrence, Harrelson, and Hutcherson, The Hunger Games features some fantastic supporting characters. Caesar Flickerman, a talk show host/commentator who bombastically narrates and guides the drama both within the Games and without, is a perpetual favorite. Stanley Tucci brings a devilish life to the character, filled with a confident yet somewhat disgusting energy. It's no coincidence that a story filled with Roman metaphors would place the title of Caesar on the brow of Panem's number one talking head; in a world where murderous reality TV is the highlight of the year, who holds more power than the man in charge of the screen? Caesar is a gleeful, unapologetic Satan who laughs with delight as teenagers parade on stage and march off to their bloody deaths.

And yet, this horrifying man still manages to be lovably charismatic

Effie Trinket, an extravagant fashionista charged with keeping Katniss and Peeta presentable, is another of the film's best supporting characters. Her first appearance is one of the most visually striking in the film, as she enters the white and gray desolation of District 12 in a garish purple suit and white face paint. She is the absolute contrast to Katniss; while Katniss struggles to survive from day to day and is willing to give her life for those she loves, Effie is utterly alone, oblivious, and obsessed with triviality. In a lesser film, she would be a boogeyman to boo and hiss, but the film smartly develops her as a sympathetic figure who will, over the course of this film and the next, fully embrace Katniss and begin to learn what it means to be human. This is a series that becomes progressively more and more about political revolution, but Effie's transformation symbolizes Katniss's greatest victory.

Effie enters the scene as a Clown of Death before finding salvation
Death is all over the place here. The Games themselves are obviously steeped in it, as we learn brutally fast within their opening minutes, when numerous children are cut down ruthlessly in a violent, nearly silent massacre, as the pulse of blood in Katniss's head deafens her to the insanity in front of her eyes. The camera shakes along with Katniss as we catch brief but harsh glimpses of the violence, one of the most effective uses of a shaky cam in any recent blockbuster. From the death in the arena to the ritualistic watching of the games to Effie's corpse-like makeup to a shot of Katniss looking like a corpse herself as she lays on a slate waiting for her fashion consultant, Panem's pulse is not bread and circuses, but rather blood and sacrifice. Fitting for a nation ruled by a Dracula-figure like President Snow.

The fashion morgue
President Snow himself is played flawlessly by Donald Sutherland. He works with Head Game Maker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) to ensure that his nation gets its yearly infusion of youthful blood, sustaining the shambling corpse of Panem for another year. This calls to mind another 2012 film, Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, a film which features a different Hemsworth, the beefier brother Chris. In Cabin, an audience of Old Gods force mankind to reenact gruesome horror movies, fed and pacified by the death of innocents. Game Makers guide the events of both Cabin and Hunger Games, and both follow a similar "audience is the true monster" line of thinking. The world of Cabin is disrupted and revolution erupts when its regularly scheduled programming goes awry; likewise, the audience gives up its passivity and embraces revolution in The Hunger Games after seeing Katniss stand up and essentially give The Capitol the finger at the end of this film. The two complement each other well, though I feel Hunger Games is a massively better film.

Both Snow's camera presence and white roses dwarf Crane's smaller frame and red flowers
This is a stellar film that fully deserves the success and accolades it received. Just about every shot looks good, there are no weak links in the cast, and there's strong audience association with both Katniss and with the fictional audience of the film. When Katniss mourns the death of a fellow Tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg), it's emotionally effective, both for us and the audience watching the Games within the movie. This moment is one of the catalysts of revolution, and yet is simultaneously exploited by the men running the cameras who just want to give Panem a good piece of drama. Turns out their exploitation is their own undoing.

Rue becomes an unknowing martyr of revolution
I'm disappointed that director Gary Ross and Lionsgate couldn't work out a better deal for budget/production time on the next film, because his departure is sorely felt. His replacement, Francis Lawrence, carries the next three films, and does so with workman competence with occasional flashes of brilliance, but without the same level that makes this first film so effective. Part two, Catching Fire, is a very strong film as well (which we'll get to in the next review,) but the original Hunger Games stands alone well and succeeds through care and dedication on a level that few young adult novels ever receive.

Katniss bathed in red

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