When you write film reviews, it’s easy to be elitist. Your critical peers talk lovingly about Jean-Luc Godard, Kurosawa and Dogma 95. The drive is to hang with your peers and in doing so, I’ll sometimes miss out on the bigger picture. Thus is my story of The Hunger Games.
When my girlfriend borrowed the book set, I picked up the first novel, read two paragraphs, poo pooed the first person narrative and tossed it aside. What me? How could I, a film critic looking for respectability, possibly entertain the notion of reading a series that looked like it was penned by a high schooler. I put the book down, ignored the movies and never thought twice about it.
But then, I got a wakeup call. A friend of my girlfriend’s father asked me what I thought about the most recent installment in the Hunger Games trilogy. Being all cinematic and too cool for the room, I responded, “Naaaaah. Haven’t seen it.” His shocked response?
“What kind of movie critic are you? You HAVE to see it!”
While he was half joking, he was right. The Hunger Games has permeated modern culture, made Jennifer Lawrence a star and has millions upon millions of fans. And let’s face it. The general public could care less about my opinions on The Cremaster Cycle. They’re more interested in what I think about films they actually want to see.
So, I dived in, popped it on Netfilx and learned an important lesson. The Hunger Games may rely on some standard tropes of the teen action genre, but the end result is so well directed and exhilarating, I’m hungry to see the entire series. In short, I was a bit of an ass for putting it on the shelf.
The Hunger Games takes place in the nation of Panem, a dystopian society consisting of a highfalutin capitol and twelve poor districts. In celebration of a quelled rebellion, the country hosts a yearly Hunger Games competition where a boy and a girl from each district are thrown into a competition of death and survival. Imagine a combination of The Running Man, Lord of the Flies and the Truman Show. Got it? You’re halfway there. After her sister is chosen to compete, Katniss Evergreen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her stead and takes on a seemingly impossible challenge.
As I said in the opening, The Hunger Games made Jennifer Lawrence a star and for good reason. She’s exceptional as the young, skilled and likable Katniss. Whether she’s dodging fireballs, outsmarting fellow combatants or simply connecting with fellow cast mates, Lawrence’s character balances vulnerability and survival skill to great effect. She especially shines when forming a shaky alliance with a fellow contestant and dealing with the personal tragedies of mortal combat.
Supporting Lawrence’s good work is some exceptional direction by screenwriter/director Gary Ross. With an expert sense of pacing and eye catching costuming, Ross elevates the film beyond my meager expectations of a Hollywood blockbuster. The movie also has a fine supporting cast including a wonderful Stanley Tucci as the game’s MC and Woody Harrelson as sponsor and mentor for the teenage protagonists. The filmmakers also managed to inject some honest themes in to the screenplay. Notes of corporate exploitation, loyalty and betrayal run through the movie, providing more meat than I originally expected.
Of course, things aren’t perfect on the dangerous utopia of Panem. Some of the CGI used to create the world is downright jarring, most noticeable in the film’s climax. The screenplay is also fairly predictable and not because I’m aware of the two sequels. And of course, this is teen fiction and with the genre comes some standard clichés that make my thirty year old brain cringe. It was written for young people and some of the relationships and character arcs show the influence.
But when the final curtain draws on the first Hunger Games, I had nothing but nice things to say. The action is well choreographed, there’s genuine tension and, most importantly, I walked away anxious to see the second installment. I’ve talked about my critic hat before and how tough it can be to let go of preconceived notions. The Hunger Games not only reminded me that good things can come from popular places, but it’s OK to grab some popcorn and give in to the hype. To the gentleman who prompted me to see this, I’d like to thank you. Not only was The Hunger Games worth my time and attention, you taught me an important lesson in critical humility. In other words, shut up and enjoy.
Score: 8.5 out of 10