Friday, March 23, 2012

REVIEW: ‘The Hunger Games’ is rare “teenage” movie with message

Movies geared for young adults and teenagers rarely have a profound message.

Most are vapid ensembles revolving around sex, drugs, rock and roll and trite problems that can be solved in a little less than two hours. The parents are usually caring but oblivious, the teens are usually wise beyond their years and the love triangles are usually straightforward and obvious.

‘The Hunger Games’ is the exact opposite.

First off, ‘The Hunger Games’ is set in a dystopian society where teenagers aren’t worried what they’re going to wear to the big dance (or what a rival may have said about them) but whether or not their family will have anything to eat that night. When you add to that the fact that once a year they’re forced into a drawing where the “winner” gets to fight to the death with 23 other teenagers – you realize pretty quickly that life in ‘The Hunger Games’ world is pretty different from anything we’ve ever seen.

I went to the first midnight showing to see the film. As an avid fan of the books, I figured this was the audience I wanted to see the film with. Given the fact that it’s practically spring break and that the weather has been unseasonably warm – I expected the theaters to be packed.

I was surprised that there were three theaters showing the film at once (there was only one for the midnight showing of the last ‘Harry Potter’ I went to). I was even more surprised by the fact that it wasn’t all teenagers waiting in line – there were a bevy of adults who didn’t have a kid in sight who were eagerly chattering away about the movie before it started as well.

According to Deadline Hollywood, the film raked in $19.75 million in midnight showings alone (making it the highest grossing non-sequel midnight debut ever -- and the seventh overall). That’s the rare phenomenon of ‘The Hunger Games,’ though. It speaks to and captures the imagination of adults as well as children – much like ‘Harry Potter’ did.
First off, it seems every summer blockbuster tried to pack their trailer in front of the movie. They ranged from the good (‘The Avengers,’ ‘Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,’ ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’) to the bad (‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting,’ ‘Dark Shadows,’ ‘The Amazing Spiderman’) to the empty (‘Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn: Part 2).

The movie opens up with a brief explanation of what The Hunger Games are and then delves right into the story. Essentially – and this isn’t a spoiler for anyone who has seen the trailer – the central heroine Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her 12-year-old sister when the young girl is chosen as the female tribute from District 12.

Right from the start, Jennifer Lawrence imbues Katniss with a quiet strength that belies her years. We’re shown throughout the movie – mainly in flashback – that 16-year-old Katniss has had to support her family for a very long time because her mother essentially ceased being the adult in the house when the girls’ father dies in a mining accident.

The male tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson (more on him in a minute). In short order, Katniss and Peeta are transported to the capital, where they are introduced into a world of decadence that is shocking to two kids who have grown up in a depressing world where people die of starvation on a regular basis.

Their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (played by a solid Woody Harrelson), shows little interest in them from the start. He’s more interested in drinking than helping them survive the cold world they will be shoved into in a few weeks. Book fans know that Haymitch is merely tired of sending kids off to their death – so he doesn’t want to bond with someone he thinks will be gone in a short while. They don’t really explain this in the movie, though, and that’s one of my only quibbles.

After being trained for a few weeks – where Katniss excels despite her personality disconnect – 24 teenagers are dropped into what is kind of like a ‘Star Trek’ holodeck (a really big one). This is the big moment, and the filmmakers masterfully created a melee of confusion and death as half of the tributes are hewed down on the opening day. All of this happens in a confusing crush of images and an almost a vacuum of sound.

I don’t want to get into a whole lot of spoilers for those who haven’t read the trilogy. I will just say that, as a fan of the books, I couldn’t be happier with the way they carried out the film – or the emotional heft the death scenes carry.

As far as casting, Lawrence proves that she’s one of the finest young actresses out there today. As for Hutcherson, I had reservations about him, but somehow by the end of the movie he had exceeded any expectations I could have had. This kid is talented, and I hope to see him in some other things down the road.

Harrelson steals just about every scene he’s in and Donald Sutherland (does he age anymore? Because he looks the same as he did back in ‘Backdraft’?) lends a quiet menace and erstwhile sophistication to his scenes which will help anchor his hateful President Snow in future films.

Most of the other tributes are just there as fodder, but the two standouts are Amandla Stenberg as Rue and Isabelle Fuhrman (‘The Orphan’) as Clove. Both don’t have much screen time – but they make a definite impression.

My only problem with the casting is Liam Hemsworth as Gale – the other love interest in Katniss’ life. He’s vapid and empty. The good thing is, he’s only in a few scenes. The bad news is, he becomes a bigger part of the story later on. I don’t think Hemsworth is on par with the rest of the actors involved in this endeavor. If they wanted to cast a Hemsworth brother they should have went with the vastly superior Chris Hemsworth (‘Thor’).

Given today’s political climate, ‘The Hunger Games’ has been brought forth by both sides as an example of “what they’re talking about” in their political diatribes.

Conservatives say that ‘The Hunger Games’ is what happens when big government takes over. Liberals say that ‘The Hunger Games’ is an example of what happens when only a handful of people in a country hold all the wealth.

Saying that ‘The Hunger Games’ isn’t political would be incorrect. The film is definitely political. At its heart it’s a commentary on government (mostly communist, mind you) and pop culture. The people in this world are watching these kids kill each other for sport, after all, and sponsors send in medicine and food to kids they like while ignoring other kids in the process.

Haymitch encourages his young tributes to fake a love connection to get the sympathy of the nation – and it’s that connection that actually stirs the heart of ‘The Hunger Games.’ The nation falls in love with Katniss and Peeta – all the while Katniss is learning a little something about herself. Neither Katniss nor Peeta are willing to give up who they are and meld themselves to what the government wants them to be.

Essentially, you see, hope is the central theme of ‘The Hunger Games.’ Katniss’ unwillingness to let Peeta die and her protective instincts toward other characters light a fire in the outlying districts. Essentially, she stirs civil unrest – which won’t be addressed until future films.

Given the amount of money that this movie has already brought in, I have no doubt the other two books will be turned into movies as well. The central messages in both of them are equally as strong – but the stories in those grow along with the heroine (read: at her own pace).

In the end, ‘The Hunger Games’ accomplishes everything it sets out to do. It makes you think. For parents, there’s obviously some level of violence but it’s actually pretty tame – all things considered – and I promise your kids will learn something from this film.

What do you think? Did ‘The Hunger Games’ live up to your expectations?


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