The Hunger Games is a great looking movie. In the future the oppressive government selects a boy and a girl from each of the twelve districts to compete in the Hunger Games, a version of the most dangerous game carried out in a wilderness biodome. A couple of generations ago the poor from the districts rose up against their oppressors in revolution and after it was quelled the powers at be decided upon the televised and immensely popular Hunger Games, both to distract the plebians and to keep them in line. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), from the poor, coal-mining District 12 (all the districts have a particular mineral or service they provide), volunteers to participate in the battle to the death when her younger sister is selected and she offers to take her place. The boy from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutchenson) and in the arena they will compete together and against each other until a champion can be crowned, leaving behind nearly two dozen 13- to 18-year-old bodies. The look of The Hunger Games is exceptionally rich. We are told it is in the future, yet you get no sense of that in District 12, which looks like a Great Depression ghost town. Contrasted with the posh and clean Capital, the movie invokes 1984 and its shabby rundown Victory Mansions, it seems the nation’s wealth, provided by the working-class districts, does not reach them. The Capital and its inhabitants are a triumph of art direction; make-up and hairstyles are outrageous (we are given Elizabeth Banks as a harlequin official and even Lenny Kravitz’s mentor wears eyeliner). The look of the people seems inspired by The Wizard of Oz, intricate pieces of costuming in resplendent, bold colors. Woody Harrelson, who plays a former Hunger Games champion, coaching Katniss and Peeta, is often seen in three-piece suits with striking patterns that one could find in a Big and Tall store for the Lollipop Guild. It’s when the movie arrives at the Capital that it takes off.
The first third establishes Katniss, an accomplished hunter, in the dreary District 12 and the visual strategy in this section seems to be close-up upon close-up. Director Gary Ross relies on close-ups far too oftern throughout The Hunger Games (and incomprehensible shaky-cam, all the rage in actioners these days) but in the first third in particular he almost completely forgoes wide establishing shots, often times making information hard to absorb. As the movie gets more intense in its action, he’s forced into a more traditional visual style and the movie is better for it. I suppose, these early scenes could be the director’s way of visually representing the new wider range of Katniss’s life as she’s exposed to the high society of the Capital and the citizens of the rest of her country, but the tightness of the earlier section doesn’t suggest suffocation, just confusion. The movie actually drags in its last hour when the contestants are put in the arena and the Games begin, the most interesting section is in the middle when we learn about the universe the movie has created. Through Harrelson’s teaching, we find out that personable contestants can gain sponsors that will send them helpful things during the Games like medicine or other supplies. We meet the ringleader of the whole show, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) who produces the television program. There’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland), a paternal Santa Claus-like figure, if Santa had Sutherland’s ability for sleeping malice. There’s Stanley Tucci as the Hunger Games host and commentator, a preening, outlandish goof, who is comfortable interviewing the contestants about inane topics like their crushes or their clothes when the odds are they will be dead in the next 10 days.
Finally, the games begin and half of the charges are eliminated nearly immediately as there is a mad grab for weapons and supplies at the start of the proceedings. Katniss and Peeta split up and Peeta joins the gang of toughs from the strong, rich districts who are in temporary alliance to find the others. Peeta is valuable to them as a guide to Katniss. The producers of the show invent ways of forcing the contestents near each other, creating a fire to smoke Katniss out of a hiding spot in one case. They are able to conjure up whatever they can imagine, at one point creating a new breed of dog, some sort of snarling hell beast. This goes both ways, of course, as a bottle of soothing lotion materializes from a sponsor when a burned Katniss needs it. Katniss survives through her cunning and certainly her bow and arrow while the number of remaining teens grows thinner. There are some terrible scenes of children murdering other children but The Hunger Games pulls a lot of punches in terms of what it is warning against. Unlike Katniss and her bow, the movie is less keen on its target. 1984 was explicit in its warning against totalatarianism and the rise of technology but The Hunger Games is much more vague. We don’t get a sense of what makes the government so oppressive so the stakes of the underdog districts aren’t accessible to us. The angle of the callous reality show obsessed culture doesn’t hold water either. The Hunger Games stretch over days and weeks and much of that time would include the contestants sleeping and building shelters, it would not make for good live television. In fact, the trend in reality tv seems to be going away from talent and wits and more to personalities and the games don’t give the hunted much opportunity to showcase that. Even The Running Man’s sadistic game show seemed like a more pointed attack. The movie’s handling of the ending shows more teeth, however. I don’t think its much of a spoiler to reveal that Katniss wins the Hunger Games but it is hardly a moment of triumph, in fact, it feels meaningless because of all the lost lives and the fact that it won’t particularly raise her fortunes in a world where all the cards are the hands of others. It’s an empty victory.