The Hunger Games
The world, no doubt, will in fact be watching this week as the first blockbuster of 2012 is released on DVD and Blu-ray: "The Hunger Games," based on the first of the hugely popular teen fiction trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, brings to life the kid-eat-kid dystopian competition that shocked and engaged millions of readers. It's good - in parts, it's really good - and it boasts, without exception, effective performances that will make fans of the book cheer. Unfortunately, thanks to lackluster direction and a slightly off-balance telling of the story, it lacks the bite of its source material.
The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic future North America called Panem, wherein an uprising seventy-five years before the events of the film against the Capitol (located in the area previously known as the Rocky Mountains) led to a military crackdown and subsequent oppression of the outlying 12 districts, which now scramble for necessities like food while the citizens of the Capital nibble on caviar. In an oddly reasoned play to keep the districts in line, the Capital holds a yearly contest in which one boy and one girl from each district are involuntarily conscripted and sentenced to battle to the death in a technologically-enhanced arena. When young Primrose Eberdeen (Willow Shields) is drawn as a "tribute" for the games, her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place - and together with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) heads to the Capital. There she's primped and primed by stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), socially advised by the colorful, uptight Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), interviewed on television by sycophantic Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), trained in tactics by previous games winner and drunkard Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and thrown into the ring where gamesmaster Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) attempts to kill her via methodologies designed purely for their entertainment values - including fire, big dogs, killer bees, and an assortment of weapons handed to the other tributes.
True to its PG-13 rating, which follows the intent of Collins' book, the overt killing in the arena is downplayed when not left entirely to imagination; that's quite smart, and keeps the focus on the game of survival ethics rather than overt gore. Running through the script is an effective emotional conversation wherein, amidst a life-or-death struggle, human nature is tempted to devolve until, pressed to the point where existence is little more than oppression and injustice, its morality rebels. In fact, that evolution is riveting to watch in the hands of Lawrence, Harrelson and Hutcherson - and they are ably assisted by Amandia Stenberg in the role of Rue, who reignites for Katniss the capacity for love in otherwise impossible circumstances. And if Tucci (unfortunately) is stuck in character miasma with Flickerman, at least Bentley and Kravitz deliver meaty roles in which their jobs as citizens of the Capital play out with ethical conflict.
But for whatever reason - and the blame probably lies between Collins and feckless director Gary Ross - the larger struggles of Panem have been largely excised from the movie. They're given lip service in the form of numerous shots of poor people, the overzealous but unexplained coloring of the capital citizens meant to represent the masking of corruption, and one brief riot in a district spurred on by the death of a tribute during the games. But these sequences alone never evolve into the menace one feels pounding through the novel, the loss of dignity and life imposed as a threat against those who would dare think of rebellion, even the oppression at the minute level of freedoms we take for granted - food, space and the opportunity of betterment. As explored in the book by a nameless, baleful domination of the haves versus the have-nots, this struggle is the macrocosm represented by the games, and in the film it's been seemingly reduced to the cantankerous singular character of President Snow. No matter how despotic Donald Sutherland plays Snow, it's not enough to replace the book's economic and political miasma.
The result is not only a misappropriation of symbolic imagery - Katniss' fiery clothing is meant to represent the incendiary nature of Panem's circumstances, not the fires of District 12's mines - but also a misfiring of the story's denouement. Ultimately, Katniss' anger and determination are meant to undermine her personal intents and ethics when she realizes she's able to become the symbol that can truly kindle the intended rebellion's flames; bereft of the larger game afoot, "The Hunger Games" fizzles out into a simpler story of survival, leaving much of its ending moments either emotionally unsupported or just downright confusing. It doesn't help that Ross fails to bring anything truly innovative or visionary to its telling. It's enjoyable to watch, and fans of the book will appreciate its first-rate casting - but "The Hunger Games" will leave you... well, hungry.
Special Features ::
• "The World is Watching: Making of The Hunger Games" - an eight-part documentary covering the "making of" the film in all aspects from the pre-production process all the way through the theatrical release and fan reactions
• "Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon" featurette
• "Letters from the Rose Garden" featurette - insights from Donald Sutherland on the development of his role as President Snow
• "Controlling the Games" featurette - stories and concepts behind creating the control center
• "A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell"
• Propaganda Film (in its entirety)
• Marketing Archive
• "Preparing for The Games: A Director's Process" (Blu-ray Exclusive)
"The Hunger Games"
BD/DVD Combo Pack