Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Caitlin's Review of Hunger Games

Surprised and Sated
by Caitlin Murphy

I had made a vague, but deeply felt decision about The Hunger Games before I even walked into thetheatre.  Something about hating it.  My conclusion was based on a few previews, but also my sad suspicion that Jennifer Lawrence – who I’d adored in last year’s stirring film Winter’s Bone – was about to cash in her chips in yet another hyped-up book-to-blockbuster orgy. 

Sometimes it’s so lovely to be wrong.

It’s a pretty intelligent movie that can entertain at the same time that it poses deep and troubling questions about the nature of diversions, and the perverse thirsts that entertainment can quench and create.  The Hunger Games is ultimately a well-sustained and scathing indictment of reality t.v., ‘last man standing’ ideology, survivor fetishism, celebrity obsession and all that feels familiar but icky about the current state of mainstream culture.

Based on the supremely successful novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is set in a nasty, gray future, in a nation called Penam.  Controlled by the ominous Capitol, Penam is divided into 12 Districts based on the trade that each produces.  As punishment for a past insurrection, every year each district must offer up one boy and girl, to compete in a televised fight to the death.  When her sister’s name is drawn in the dreaded lottery for District 12, Katniss Everdeen, a feisty and resourceful 16 year old, offers herself up in her sister’s place.  Once Katniss is joined by Peeta Mellark as the male competitor, our entry into the frighteningly familiar world of the Hunger Games begins.

The formula for the games cleverly echoes the conceits of competitive reality t.v.  Here it’s unsurprising that Collins has a background in television writing.  She gets it.  Boy, does she get it.  After a fast train ride to the Capitol, the competitors are fed, feted, styled, coached, and counselled.  Entering in on chariots (the gladiator imagery starts strong), the competitors are paraded for the masses to ogle and judge.  Katniss and Peeta enter ablaze, with flames emerging from the backs of their slick black outfits.  Fire quickly becomes a motif in the film, a useful symbol of the hypocrisy and duplicity inherent in the games:  the cruel discrepancy between the pomp and pageantry that sets things off, and the brutal, quick slaughtering that ensues.  The flame that warms and dazzles, is of course the same that burns and destroys.

The citizens of the Capitol are airy confections. With their delirious grins, colourful bouffant dos, and glitter make-up, they are all extremes and excess.  Getting to laugh and marvel at these unfamiliar excesses, we are, of course gently nudged to take stock of our own.  The Capitol thus stands in for Hollywood, imbuing that American Idol classic phrase, ‘you’re going to Hollywood!’ with the sinister undertones it likely merits.  Though the competitors in the Hunger Games actually fight to the death (the first gruesome images that remind us of this are startling), it’s not a huge leap from these games to any other entertainment.  And this is where The Hunger Games is most successful.  Like all compelling sci-fi, the dystopic society it presents is simply not far enough away from our own to let us comfortably assume we are watching mere fiction or fantasy. 

To celebrate the individual, we of course have to put him/her in the context of the many; that is, in order for one to be lauded, many must be disposable.  In many ways it’s a value system at odds with itself.  And in this sense, we can be forgiven for our confusion over whether we are most interested in watching the mighty rise or the less mighty fall.  It calls up those sorry, torturous montage sequences that American Idol rejects are forced to watch before they exit stage left; “We hate to do this to you,” the message seems to go, “but not enough to not do it.”

Even the conventions of romantic love as sold to us are nicely scrutinized here.  As Katniss slowly learns the ‘amuse the masses’ part of the games, she recognizes the zeal for saccharine sweet romance.  She thus concocts a romantic plot between her and Peeta to win favour and save her friend (the show has sponsors who can send their preferred competitors needed aid).  The subtlety with which this move is handled though suggests that Katniss is not actually deceptive; she does indeed love Peeta, it’s just that her understanding of that word goes so far beyond the facile world of engagement ring close-ups and baby bump alerts that the difference between ‘love’ and ‘in love’ is irrelevant to her.

Jennifer Lawrence continues to deliver in the vein of complex stoicism that she mustered so beautifully in the earlier cited Winter’s Bone.  Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark is rounded and real.  He has a sense of humour about himself;  he is not the sucker male, made weak to showcase female strength; he is genuinely self-aware.  Even Woody Harrelson, who I realize I’d given up on trying to like anymore, is quite fun and watchable here as the drunk and broken ‘coach’, Haymitch Habernathy.  (As a side note, I enjoy how even character names are familiar, but slightly off).  And Donald Sutherland as the President, doesn’t have to do much, but is effective and restrained nonetheless.

Even when the film moves into clich├ęd action-adventure waters, such as with the unleashing of over-grown pit-bulls hopped up on steroids, we are always forced to remember that this is what ‘they’, (meaning audiences, meaning us) wants.  Collins has us in an interesting bind.

 The film avoids an easy ending, primarily of course because this is a trilogy and there are more films to come, but I think also because it’s genuinely interested in courting complexity.  I am certainly not the target demographic for The Hunger Games, and part of me wonders where the film actually ‘hits’ with the ‘kids these days’.  I guess I worry that the Hollywood machine is just such a big-mouthed monolith that it can consume any dissent and simply grind it up into the same old meat.  For instance, I cynically suspect that not much of the movie’s press junket has been devoted to its true themes.

Collins has said that the idea for her book arose when channel surfing; flipping between a reality t.v. show and footage of the invasion of Iraq, she noticed that the two "began to blur in this very unsettling way".  This kinda of blurring is certainly disconcerting, especially because it’s everywhere, and I think it’s among the most troubling aspects of modern day existence.  What I applaud most about the film is how it examines the pressures of living in a world with ideologies “gone wild” but unacknowledged.  So accustomed to spectacles of competition and elimination and celebrations of the individual, we have come to ignore the most basic human truth – that we need each other.  The Hunger Games has just about as much heart as it’s got bite.

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