It’s the middle of August and I’m just now bothering to tune in to one of the biggest pop culture events of the year. Before I start, let me rundown everything – and I mean everything – I know about The Hunger Games before going in:
– It’s based on a book, the first in a trilogy, about a post-apocalyptic America where there are “districts” instead of states, and each district is supposed to manufacture something specific, like coal or steel or young adult books.
– The hero’s name is Katniss. Everyone has stupid names like that. I think somebody might be named Wiffletoots, or maybe Skufflepuffleblern. I won’t be surprised if somebody shows up called Jjjjjjjjjjjj.
– Katniss is really good with a bow and arrow. I know this because my daughter was Katniss for Halloween last year and all she needed for the costume as a bow and arrow.
– There’s a game Katniss plays that’s part The Lottery, part Battle Royale, and part The Running Man (minus Jesse Ventura, sadly), and somehow this keeps Future America from falling apart.
– Donald Sutherland is both the president and the villain, like if Herbert Hoover played Richard Dawson, a phrase that makes more sense in my head than typed out like that.
– I think somebody wears a big wig or something. Something about dressing funky, maybe? I don’t know.
(142 minutes later…)
Hey, that was a pretty darn good movie. Who knew?
– The names are stupid, but not as stupid as I had expected. Maybe because it took me an hour before I realized it was “Peeta” and not “Peter.”
– The bits about what each district does and how evil the president is don’t show up here. I must’ve heard my daughter (a fan of the books) discuss something about one of the sequel novels.
– I was wrong, kinda, about the post-apocalyptic thing. Or maybe I wasn’t. I liked how the movie (and, I can assume, the book) doesn’t explain how civilization got to this point, beyond the basics needed to understand how the Hunger Games work. Heck, it can even be argued this isn’t our future but some other Earth, an alternate whatever where this is just how things are. Because it doesn’t matter. All that counts is the current circumstance. Most fantasy series find it necessary to present the reader/viewer with a mountain of excess backstory; The Hunger Games doesn’t, and that’s a good thing.
– I also really, really dug the movie’s view of this possible future, contrasting an almost punk rock aesthetic of the upper class with the dismal rural poverty of the working class. Seeing THX-1138-y design in what looked to be the middle of West Virginia genuinely thrilled me. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, and I’m always happy to see something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.
– The film never apologizes for its sci-fi elements, and instead embraces them, delivering some deliciously out-there visuals. The face paint, the beards, the blue hair, it’s all so excessive and delirious – and, incredibly, it was all accepted by mainstream America. Thirty years ago, a movie like this would’ve been a cult favorite at best, but today, it’s a box office smash. (Place this alongside an oddball silent indie import winning Best Picture, and I suddenly have faith in the future of pop culture.)
– The running time could’ve used some trimming, and I would’ve preferred a tighter epilogue. Both are symptoms of the influence of Harry Potter and Twilight, with their fans demanding a greater faithfulness to the source material, and with studios demanding more open-ended finales to ensure a franchise, neither of which help a movie stand on its own.
– (Spoilers this note) Despite this excess, I felt a couple scenes were too rushed. The main culprit is the segment where Katniss volunteers to save her sister. This sort of just happens, in a rush, with director Gary Ross not building the proper tension. It plays with an obligatory-ness that undermines the potential emotional heft. (Solid performances all around help make up for this, especially in the follow-up scene.) Also rushed was Rue’s death – not that it was sudden (the suddenness has a certain impact that stuns), but that it comes too soon after the character is introduced. Her relationship with Katniss could’ve been stretched more. (End spoilers)
– The movie’s refusal to glamorize the violence – even during its more thrilling moments (including the closing fight a short drop away from a hungry pack of panther-dogs, which is a glorious bit of pulp adventure) – is quite welcome. The temptation to turn Katniss into an action hero is mostly avoided; while she does kill, there’s a reluctance there that helps us take more kindly to her character.
– “May the odds be ever in your favor” is a clumsy phrase. I’m not sure if Suzanne Collins was looking for a fancy-schmancy way to say “good luck” or if she intentionally chose a wording that makes those who say it (the well-to-do) look ridiculous. Maybe she just wanted a corny catchphrase.
– Great soundtrack, in terms of both score and songs. Most impressive, though, is how well James Newton Howard uses silence instead of music to punctuate a scene.
– Stanley Tucci remains awesome.