26 March 2012


Having been hyped as The Next Big Thing in films for around a year or so now, it's fair to say that The Hunger Games, the first of a potential four films based on Suzanne Collins' uber-popular novels, has now properly arrived as a massive pop culture thingummy. Aside from having the third biggest opening weekend of all time at the US box office, and superseding the gross of every other film ever made by studio Lionsgate in just three days, it's also a bit flipping good.

Even with its unavoidable thematic debt to Battle Royale and The Running Man, its central allegory feels timely and incisive. Set in one of those dystopian futures, the titular games are an annual ceremony in which each district of a subjugated nation must make Tributes of one boy and one girl to the Capitol, to take part in a televised deathmatch. Katniss Everdeen comes from an outlying industrial district, and when her younger sister is selected as a Tribute, she volunteers herself instead, and is pitched into an arena where 23 children will die, and only one can survive.

The comparison between Twilight and The Hunger Games reminds me vaguely of those Old Spice adverts. Look at Katniss Everdeen. Now, look at Bella Swan. Back at Katniss, the heroine your heroine could be. Now she's got a bow and arrow. Worlds away from the emotional hot potato that Stephanie Meyer calls a heroine, Katniss is a superb female character, with a personality and everything! More than that, she's performed brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence.

Of course, such a performance isn't entirely unexpected from an already great young actress who got an Oscar nomination for her role as Ree in Winter's Bone. That was a steely, determined performance, as a character who was prematurely forced to grow up in an extraordinarily hostile environment, and the dystopian leanings of Collins' story aren't too far removed. Still, her Katniss is paranormally awesome, and is more than enough to carry the film high above any potential pitfalls.

Gary Ross, who made his name in much smaller, more intimate films, such as Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, arrives in the action genre with something of a plop, and that is possibly the biggest problem with The Hunger Games. The use of shakycam during some of the fight scenes is simply intolerable, which affects the impact of the violence far more than, say, trimming seven seconds in order to secure the all-important 12A rating. I also think that the film runs a little too long, spending equal parts of its 140 minutes on the set-up and on the main Hunger Games event. And yet, in all that build-up, the film still doesn't really adequately explain the rules of the staging of the games, which take place in some kind of vague electronic sphere, out in the woods.

Nevertheless, the obligatory world-building, which could have been rather clunky, is pretty economical. The decadence of the Capitol might be a bit too on-the-nose, with Judianna Makovsky's costume design looking a little something like a catalogue designed by Tim Burton, but the supporting cast do a grand job. Elizabeth Banks is nigh unrecognisable as Katniss' pampered handler, and the ever-enjoyable Stanley Tucci is terrifically unctuous as a drippingly insincere chat-show host.

The closest it really comes to Twilight is the love triangle, and that's only teed up here, instead of being central to the narrative. Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta, Katniss' fellow Tribute, who winds up befriending her in the course of the games, away from her hunting buddy back home, Liam Hemsworth's Gale. While this is sure to pop up in the sequels, it's not hugely prominent this time around, except to demonstrate the fickle reality TV culture that promotes Katniss not as the strong and determined young woman that she is, but as a love interest to Peeta, who's a little less capable.

The Hunger Games is the right film at the right time- a mega-hit young adult adaptation in the vein of Twilight, but one which significantly changes the game of making films with female heroines for either females or teenage boys. In marketing terms, it's a "four-quadrant film", but it's also a very dark, intense and entertaining action film. Jennifer Lawrence gives the kind of performance that makes movie stars, and I'm definitely looking forward to next November's Catching Fire.

The Hunger Games is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Hunger Games, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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