Thursday, April 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

An original concept, to say the least

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson

Directed by Gary Ross

It has been #1 at the box office for four straight weeks now. This highly-hyped movie is based on the first installment of a book series by Suzanne Collins. It tells the story of a young woman who is thrust into the spotlight in a bloodthirsty, imperialistic society that has lost its moral fiber; if she survives long enough, she may well be the catalyst for change that could bring the whole thing crashing down.

First thing's first: Jennifer Lawrence. She is an incredible actress; her work as the main character in this movie really brings that character - and the world itself - to life. If she wasn't already a star for her work in Winter's Bone, she is now. It is rare to watch a main character who is so imminently able to make the audience identify with their plight, but she does that. It's a sight to behold and she should honestly get Oscar consideration for this movie.

The main source of my own interest in seeing this is that it's based on a book and I'm always interested to see how adaptations like this are handled. I wasn't expecting too much out of it. And not to mince words... it blew me away. From the posters and propaganda art for the movie I thought it was some sort of medieval adventure, yet moments into the movie we find out that it's actually futuristic in setting. This story takes place in a fictional nation that has a lot in common with the United States; it is divided up into districts that are run by a central government. This nation is still recovering from a civil war where a number of states tried to secede and continue to be punished for it in perpetuity.

In one such territory resides our hero, Katniss. Aside from having a name I have never heard anywhere else (on a micro level, the uniqueness of this movie shows right away). She has as nice of a life as one can have in one of the poorer districts - likely in that state because it tried to secede - but that soon gets turned upside down. I don't know how the movie is reviewing, but I can see a lot of people resenting it because the characters are almost all teenagers. Personally the only real issue I had with the movie was the fact that it was a movie... there were a number of parts where I could tell it was glossing over major story aspects. Like "this scene could have been a full episode if this were a TV show". When it comes to adapting a book, I definitely prefer the TV show medium to a movie. That said, unlike some book-to-movie adaptations, this movie manages to do so little summing-up that it's hard to even tell that it's based on a book.

Aside from how damn original it is, the movie was great for many reasons - and two in particular come to mind. First and foremost, it's the first movie I've seen in a WHILE that actually got "female empowerment" right... in that it didn't actually try to do "female empowerment". The main character is a girl, and she's really tough... but the movie never hits you over the head with her femininity. For the most part, she might as well be a dude... yet she isn't. Much like Samus, Sarah Connor, or Ripley, she's allowed to simply be a very strong person. There's a scene where she bathes and even that is as non-sexualized as possible, instead being only functional. I give them all the credit in the world for having a female main character who is  in no shape or form an object. ...this makes her sexy by default, but it's a side effect rather than the goal. So...someone finally got it right. On the female empowerment scale, this is the opposite of last year's Sucker Punch.

Second, the way it subtly skewers the real world is amazing. The draft, the Iraq War, war in general, pop culture, fake-ass politicians, fake-ass news media, fake-ass celebrities, economic inequities and polarization, and even blind patriotism... all of these things are explored without the movie being the least bit obvious about it (ala Avatar's obvious anti Iraq War storyline). Not to take political sides, this movie could also be interpreted as sympathetic towards the post Civil War South and definitely anti-Big Government. Foes of Obama will enjoy the notion that "when it comes to controlling people, hope is even stronger than fear" presented by the villains of this story. People on the right can watch it and see it as an allegory for the Tea Party railing against the government, while people on the left can see it as an allegory for the Occupy movement railing against the 1%.

In truth, it's a little bit of both. Rather than jump up and down going "hey! we're referencing the real world!", The Hunger Games creates its own injustice-filled reality and just has it blur together with our own a little more than is comfortable. Avatar may have the preachy George W. Bush Memorial Speech, but this movie just shows and lets the audience think for themselves. One such moment is early in the movie, when a quick montage of fallen children is shown - with patriotic music playing - and we can infer that the audience at home mourns their deaths momentarily. Yet never is it questioned by the media why they had to die to begin with. It's a pathological moment that hits close to home.

In short... this is how you tell a story. I haven't been this unexpectedly impressed in a very long time.

The Hunger Games gets four stars out of five.

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