Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Mighty Heroine

Hollywood studios have been scrambling of late in desperation to find another fantasy franchise to fill the shoes left by Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Harry Potter having drawn to a close after more than a decade, growing up with its fan base. With Twilight entering into its final film this year, and with false starts by potential franchises such as The Dark is Rising, Eragon and The Golden Compass all failing to capture the dollars at the box office, things aren't looking too dandy. Until the box office responded to The Hunger Games, the first of a trilogy of young adult stories written by Suzanne Collins that ignited and clicked with movie-goers.

I have to admit at first glance, going by the trailers that have been incessantly playing since late last year, that this was nothing more than a Battle Royale rip off, having teenagers put into an arena and fighting to the death. Such genre films have been done countless of time, from the days of Schwarzeneggar in his The Running Man, to even Stone Cold Steve Austin in The Condemned, where everyone becomes gladiators and essentially television content fodder, and The Hunger Games surely contained the exact same elements too. But what excelled and stood this film from its peers, boils back to Collins' superbly set up story, and in Gary Ross' focused direction that never leaves the film soulless, filling it with plenty of heart and got the audience to emotionally invest in its protagonist from the get go.

And that is something Gary Ross, going by his filmography such as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, does quite effortlessly, with a story that's set in a fictional period where much of the known world is divided into districts to suppress an uprising decades ago, where each district, living in hunger and in fear, have to cough out a teenage boy and girl each between the ages of 12 to 18 every year as tribute to battle in The Hunger Games, a fight to the last, that is also broadcast live in a television show. The arena is at The Capitol where the elites live amongst armed protection, and the combatants duke it out in an arena of faux pas natural habitat that can be manipulated at will by designers.

What set this out from the rest is that it has a female protagonist who is not a useless, or whining damsel in distress. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a hunter and provider for her family, volunteering as tribute in place of her sister Primrose (Willow Shields), and together with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), they become the tributes from District 12. We spend the first hour unhurried in painting the background set for the entire trilogy, so much so that not everything got explained, which was a sly move to leave out unessential details at this point for the other sequels to follow up on, especially the need to know more about the current state of the world. We're left to concentrate on a series of unfolding events around Katniss, as well as to get to know the reclusive girl who has to learn how to milk her popularity to increase her chances of survival.

While it's essentially Battle Royale, there are the necessary tweaks to the rules of the game to keep it unique, such as the introduction of sponsors and external assistance. Katniss also had to rely on a lot of luck, and isn't your superhero Rambo from the onset, making her believable, identifiable, and with qualities in a character that you would root for. Even her skill with the bow doesn't make her a deadly shot all the time, as things like anxiety and fear make her character all the more believable, and human. Pacing was kept just right especially after the hour mark when the games kick into gear, although one complaint will be that since this is a teenage flick, you do not get to see the gory details of teen killing teen, no thanks to the deliberate cinematography to keep thing shaky, out of focus and never within comfortable depth of field. After all, this is supposed to be PG-13 stuff for the mass market, so everything's kept at a level that Walt Disney himself will approve.

Still, it's not about the violence and the deaths, but a lot more about the theme of survival, with the story going a lot more for collaboration and cooperation, even amongst allies and alliances formed amongst the strong to pick on the meek. Subplots included in the film all hint at stories that the next two installments will pick up on, such as Katniss' growing popularity amongst the districts and her becoming the icon of rebellion that you'd know will be dealt with even without reading the books. Romance also finds time to creep into the storyline, especially since an engineered one starts to become a little bit more real, and setting up an uncomplicated love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and the former's best friend in Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who had sworn to protect and provide for her family while she's away competing to return home.

And the supporting ensemble cast consists of notables such as Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson as pro-Katniss supporters, or at least those who have to stand at her corner during her preparation for the Games, and others such as Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones as television personalities, Wes Bentley as the primary gamemaster, and Donald Sutherland as President Snow, everyone veterans in their own right propping up the relative newcomers who take on primary roles in this expected franchise. Amongst those who stood out are Banks, almost unrecognizable in her makeup and costumes, and Tucci who hams it up as a television host.

The Hunger Games have got me hooked despite getting off on the wrong footing during its marketing, and I am as eager as many new found fans out there who are anticipating what's next in the story. It may be tame, but Katniss is a fresh female protagonist who will have you hooked to her cause, and that alone is this film's strength that it played up superbly. Recommended!

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