A society sates its appetite with bread and circuses, spoon-fed with tempting confections that are easy to swallow but offer only empty calories. Here in this bleak future life becomes a violent poetry, where death imitates art. Director Gary Ross adds a superficial realism to the bestselling novel, giving half-life to static text that becomes a stillborn exercise of aborted ideas and purged intellectual afterbirth.
Ross shows little skill in directing, framing a shot, or editing a film. The first half of the film as Katniss is selected and travels towards her fate is pieced together with nauseating flash cuts. The average shot length of about 1.5 seconds barely sustains the narrative integrity. Dialogue between characters becomes a chore to watch, as both actors are rarely shown together in medium shot to establish their physical relationship to each other or the environment. Ross fails to utilize the 2:35:1 aspect ratio effectively, shooting shaky close-ups for no particular reason and failing to create spatial objectiveness within the frame. The film is nearly unwatchable in the first hour and this is a shame: the story is interesting and the acting satisfactory. Fortunately, the second half settles down when the action starts and forgoes the dizzying montage.
Every year, the government takes a boy and girl between the ages of 12-18 from each of the twelve districts as punishment for a civil war 74 years ago. The districts are subjugated to Big Brother-like rule, where citizens are born into this oppressive society with no hope of ever attaining the status of the wealthy few. But there is one exception: win the Game. This random draw pits child against child for the entertainment of the 1%, as hope becomes opium for the masses. But Katniss volunteers when her younger sister is chosen and accepts this choice with a heart wrenching but steely resolve. She is under no illusions as to her chances, as the odds are most definitely not in her favor.
And here begins more an insight than criticism since I haven’t read the books. Why would the districts concede this random lottery? To protect the smallest children, I believe it’s realistic to expect that the elders in each district would create a covert counsel, where they would groom the strongest teenagers to volunteer. This protects the weakest or infirm that would never survive, and offers a glimmer of hope to the ones physically and mentally prepared. Katniss’ decision seems to be the exception: I believe it would be the norm. Also, the technology is ridiculous to the point of “magic”. The arena can create reality from ethereal pixels with the push of a button or swipe of the finger, be it deadly fireballs or monster pit bulls to torment the players. Why do they need fossil fuels when they can seemingly create it?
The film has many ideas that never break the surface tension and dive deep into subtext or metaphor. The story remains bombastically superficial in both its violence and romance, as the characters never develop complex feelings or thoughts. The film becomes a Cliff Notes version of a better story, or at least I hope so: if the novel doesn’t mine these anarchic depths then it fails, becomes just another high school confidential for the TWILIGHT mentality. The film is so superficial one begins to wonder if that’s not the very point that is being made: like Malick, the form becomes the message. In an alternate reality, it would have been interesting to see this novel realized by Ken Russell circa TOMMY or MAHLER, his most insane and visually provocative period. Though contrived and generic in execution, it’s the acting that elevates this above the mundane. I could also argue that these poor oppressed teenagers are pretty darn healthy, their teeth pearly and hair perfect. It’s a minor quibble but one that took me out of the film for a bit. What happened to the time when actors became the part and not the other way around?
THE HUNGER GAMES is a dessert, a treat to be enjoyed and then forgotten. For a main course, I’ll take a BATTLE ROYALE….with cheese.
Final Grade: (C)