Monday, April 16, 2012

Review of "The Hunger Games" movie

     I just saw one of the most annoying movies I've ever seen in my entire life -- "The Hunger Games". In fact, a couple of times I came close to walking out of the theater, but I generally hate to do that, and it was a date with my wonderful wife, so I toughed it out.

     Last month I'd read the book by Suzanne Collins upon which the movie was based, and came away disappointed. Prior to reading it, I'd heard much about how intense it was, and I suppose for certain audiences it might be. Unfortunately for me, I didn't buy the basic set-up for the story -- it just didn't hold together in my opinion, ignoring some pretty basic aspects of human nature -- and I subsequently found myself uninvolved with the characters and plot.

     I had held out some hope that the movie adaptation might fill in some of the gaps, and mitigate some of the book's weaknesses, but it turned out to be even more of a mess. 

     For one thing, in a movie called "The Hunger Games", it is not too much to expect some kind of explanation for the title. To Collins' credit, in the book she does a very good job of setting the scene of life in the poor districts, focusing on District 12, where people are existing on the edge of starvation -- they're ALWAYS hungry. That's one of the reasons why the "Hunger Games" -- televised gladiatorial combat wherein the winner receives plenty of food for life -- almost sort of makes sense: If you're that hungry, you might be ready to accept some pretty awful repression if you have a chance to escape from that perpetual hunger. It's a big part of the book, and that theme runs throughout it.

     But not once in the movie is that addressed. There are a couple of poorly-realized, confusing flashback scenes showing one of the main characters -- Peeta -- throwing some bread to the other main character -- Katniss -- but that's about it.

     It doesn't help that pretty much nobody in the movie LOOKS hungry (or even slightly peckish) -- especially not the hot young stars cast in the primary character roles. They are all obviously well-fed, toned, with perfect skin and flawless teeth -- no signs of malnutrition there!

     The movie pretty much follows the plot of the book, with a few things added, like some pointless extra bits with the character of "President Snow", played by Donald Sutherland. There are no surprises, if you've read the book.

     The only surprise for me, really, was how CHEAP the whole thing looked. I know that much of the story is set in various outdoor environments, so SOME of this was probably unavoidable, but I have to say that it reminded me a lot of those low-budget SciFi Channel movies which have a bunch of characters running around in the woods shooting at monsters/aliens/robots/giant snakes. I could discern no effort on the part of the producers of the "Hunger Games" movie to establish any kind of unique and/or identifiable, geographically-speaking, aspects to the forests that Katniss and her fellow gladiators (or "Tributes", as they are called in book and movie) run, jump and fall down in. Which is too bad, because author Collins at least attempts to do so in the book, lending a little bit of much-needed verisimilitude to the proceedings (though sadly not enough, in my opinion).

     There are a few scenes which demonstrated that some significant money and time and effort were put into them, but for the most part, the set design and art direction, as well as costuming and makeup, were distinctly average. For example, we are supposed to believe that the setting of the story is some time in the future after a terrible war has torn the United States apart and led to this society of haves and have-nots… but in the scenes of Katniss' home town in "District 12", everyone looks like they are dressed in clothes pulled right out of the movie studio's storage locker marked "Great Depression Era/1930's America". No effort -- at least that I could see -- was made to change details here and there to at least SUGGEST that this is some other time period.

     (And the less said about the ridiculous, cliched "effete" makeup and costuming of the people who live in "The Capitol", the better.)

     However, the absolute worst part of this movie is the way in which I'd say at least 85% of it is filmed… and that is with a constantly moving, jittering, swinging, jumping camera seemingly set permanently on either extreme closeup or medium closeup. This effect was already tiresome and annoying five minutes into the movie, but it continued right to the end. I find it the hallmark of a director who is not confident about what he has to film, so he "fudges" it in a way which hides any real or imagined deficiencies. What ends up happening -- and in a story like this where you have a lot of different characters in a lot of action, it's a real downer -- is that very often, you can't really tell what's going on. This is especially frustrating in the fight scenes, where you really want to know who is doing -- or trying to do -- what to whom.

     The "closeups only" approach also removes key elements which allow the view to get a sense of place -- where the characters are, what their surrounding look like. And it is a clear indication of inferior direction by someone who forgets that actors don't just act with their faces, but their BODIES as well.

     There was one saving grace to the experience of going to see "The Hunger Games" in the theater today -- I got to see, for the first time on a big screen, the most recent of the trailers for the upcoming "Avengers" movie. 

     It sure looks sweet. -- PL


VforVashaw said...

Totally agreed on the terrible shaky-cam nonsense. This is a big-budget major studio picture, not a live documentary/found-footage/first-person piece.

I enjoyed two films this weekend, THE RAID and CABIN IN THE WOODS. Can't promise you'd like either, but I certainly did, especially CABIN which I think will find its way into my all-time favorites.

I feel anyone with at least a mild appreciation for horror films (especially EVIL DEAD) should give CABIN a chance. If you have any interest in seeing it, don't read about it - not even reviews, as spoilers are rampant.

- Austin

Mark H said...

At the insistence of my wife and thirteen year old daughter I read all three of “The Hunger Games” books. I have to agree that, to some audiences it might be considered really intense and entertaining. I think, unfortunately for you and myself, we are not that target audience. I don’t think a middle aged fellow like myself or, and older gentleman like you are who Suzanne Collins had in mind when writing these books.
I was willing to overlook the setup of the story being imperfect, as long as the characters where interesting and had depth to them. Unfortunately, I did not find the characters at all interesting. I found the main character to be very whiny. She started off being a fairly strong girl and seemed to get weaker as the story progressed. My way of thinking is a girl that had to grow up at the age of twelve, take care of her mother and her little sister, live in a hostile environment, would be mentally tougher. I did not get that vibe from Katniss. Instead she seemed to be self absorbed and bratty, a girl who is always confused easily duped and constantly used. I just didn’t like that about her. I know this because at the end of the series, when she was on deaths door, I did not feel too bad. I know that sounds cold but, if the character was more believable I might have developed an emotional attachment to her by the third book. I didn’t!
When I read the “Harry Potter” series (a series not aimed for middle aged men like myself), I found the characters to be charming, I did get attached to them emotionally. When J.K. Rowling killed off Severus Snape in the last book I was emotionally moved. Almost to the point of tears. I though to myself that I was being silly getting so moved by this characters death. I could not help it though, Rowling created such a tragic character, it was as if he was ripped from Shakespearean tragedy, he was a looser in every way. Rowling wrote the character so eloquently that without realizing it I became attached to him. She is such a brilliant writer. Nobody can convince me otherwise. She wrote such a wonderful story. My wife had to convince me to read the books for almost a decade before I gave in and read them. I’m happy I did! I have no interest in reading books aimed for teens or children but, in this case, I found the books to have a charm to them. But, I digress…
With “The Hunger Games” I was reminded why I usually avoid books aimed for the younger folks. It just did not do it for me. Unfortunately for me I can not escape the fact that my thirteen year old daughter is going to want to watch the movie with her family. I’m not looking forward to it but, I guess you have to take one for the team sometimes. Besides it’s always nice to sit down and watch a film with my wife and kids. Even if the movie kinda sucks!
Thanks for the warning though. Now at least I can prepare myself. On a bright note my son has been seeing previews for the “Avengers” movie and, he seems as excited to see it as I am. It’s even better to watch a movie with my wife and kids that does not suck.. (well let’s hope it don’t suck!!!...)
Thanks for the review Pete! Have a good one,

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