daniel cohen reviews one of the most anticipated films of the year…
Plot: Set in a futuristic society, the 12 districts of Panem select one teenage boy and girl each to compete in a televised event known as the Hunger Games, where they will all battle to the death with one victor left standing. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in place of her younger sister (Willow Shields) as the female representative of the 12th District, the poorest district of Panem.
I haven’t read one word of this series, but this film definitely made me want to go out and buy all the books, so I guess that means it did it’s job. I like this movie a lot, and it does a lot of great things. So why did I leave with some level of disappointment? Well, because it could have been better. It’s really a tale of two halves: The first half is excellent, the second half…not so much. I’m going to get into all the things this movie drops the ball on, because I have a lot to say. But if there’s one thing that’s clearly evident after watching this film, it’s that at age 21, Jennifer Lawrence is one of the best actresses in Hollywood.
Lawrence has already impressed in previous films. She was able to hold her own with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in last summer’s X-Men: First Class, and she was the only worth while part of the painfully boring Winter’s Bone, which got her a well deserved Oscar nomination. Here she plays the protagonist Katniss Everdeen, and this is her best performance to date. The character itself is a bad ass, so it’s hard to screw this up, but she doesn’t even talk that much, and has to rely a lot on non-verbal acting. Within the first ten seconds, I was totally with this character. Her maturity is extraordinary, and she reminds me a lot of Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in the later Potter flicks, but much better. The character is great, and even rivals Link from Legend of Zelda in bow and arrow skills…yeah, I went there.
I can’t really say there are other notable performances, as this really is her show. Anytime Woody Harrelson shows up in a movie though, that’s always a good thing. He definitely gets his moments. No one gives a bad performance, as everyone is pretty solid. I even liked Wes Bentley, and he’s been one of my least favorite actors of the last ten years. He plays Seneca Crane, who’s basically the Roger Goodell of the Hunger Games scene. Everyone else though, which includes Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz are all good –they’re just underdeveloped. Kravitz’s character Cinna is supposed to have this close personal bond with Katniss, but he’s in like two scenes, and there was absolutely no emotional weight to this whatsoever. It wasn’t even clear what his role was in the Hunger Games. He just walks in at one point and starts talking about how much he admires Katniss. Wait, who are you again?
The first half as I mentioned before is a spectacular build-up. Watching people get selected for the games, and later as they go through their training, were all elements I found fascinating. I love the strong emphasis on the fact that this is indeed a sporting event, and you have to sell yourself to sponsors. It’s not just about the physical aspects. Art of the game is sucking up to the suits, and I loved watching Katniss go through that.
The tension early on is also riveting, such as in moments like the selection process. ary Ross (the director) even manages to bring suspense to moments like Katniss going on TV, and being forced to present herself like she was on Miss America.
The build-up to the actual games was great. You can’t wait to see how it’s all going to play out as Katniss starts going through the Running Man like tube, the countdown is going on, I’m jacked up and rearing to go, and then…the pay-off is a big let down. First of all (and I can’t stress this enough), I HATE SHAKY CAM! That’s right: the action is all shaky cam. Why did they do this?! This brought the film down significantly. The first five minutes of The Hunger Games is a bloody and vicious mess, but I can’t tell a damn thing that’s going on, because the camera is being shaken by a damn mad man!
And while a lot of the suspense from earlier in the film is still present in the actual games, it starts to get silly. I get that alliances will be formed in a sport like this, but there is one alliance of about 4-5 people where they start giggling and laughing it up like they are on a high school camping trip. You do know that you are all going to have to kill each other at some point, right? It doesn’t seem that way. And the same thing happens with Katniss’ character as well. She forms a very close friendship with a young girl from another district (Amandla Stenberg), but it just feels strange because they know they will eventually have to try and kill each other. I get that’s part of the tension, but it’s not conveyed or touched upon nearly enough. It’s way too glossed over.
Speaking of things getting glossed over, there are a lot of poorly executed story elements. There’s this big underlying theme of how the President of Panem (Donald Sutherland) doesn’t want one of the poorer districts to win, and he is clearly concerned about Katniss achieving this. But it wasn’t clear at all on why that would be such a big problem, other than the wealthier districts such as his would get a little embarrassed. But really, that’s a lame plot element as an excuse to start significantly manipulating the games. The film wants you to see this as an important problem, but the whole dynamic of the rich districts versus the poor districts is barely given any time. If the Hunger Games are successful and good for Panem, why does it matter who wins? This was really confusing, and even plays into the fate of one of the characters at the end that was way over the top, and made absolutely no sense.
Even though some plot elements are a little wishy-washy, for a near two and a half hour movie, the pacing is pretty good, but there are times where it was either way to slow, or way to fast. While a love story is hinted at between Katniss and the other District 12 participant, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), they try to cram it all into a 20 minute sequence towards the end of the film. And it’s a pretty bland love story that really halts all the momentum. The dialogue is bad, and Lawrence’s acting even takes a hit when it starts getting into all this stuff.
But they also rush some things, such as the climax. The climax is the definition of ‘meh,’ and it also goes back to the sub-par character development. The other Hunger Games participants really needed to be explored more, because when Katniss has her big showdown with the last person standing, I didn’t even know who it was…that’s not good. With the love story slowing it down, and the climax getting sped up, I lost a lot of interest and investment in this film, and that really hurt the final emotional climax.
It seems like I’ve thrown a lot of criticism at this film, but I really do like it a great deal. The tension truly does keep you glued to the screen, Katniss is an easy character to root for, I like the twists and turns throughout The Hunger Games, but it’s just missing some key elements that keep it from being really memorable. Katniss is the only well developed character, and some of the bigger story elements are just clunky. It also probably could have used a better score. I think Gary Ross does a good job, but another director could have taken this to better places. Honestly, if the action was filmed better, I would have been more forgiving of the movie’s shortcomings. At the end of the day, I’m excited, and looking forward to the inevitable sequels.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (Very Good)