Knowing how to work the media is a survival skill as essential as any of the traditional ones commonly taught in the woods. As teen-literature messages go, that’s a whole lot better than “be whiny and indecisive while a perfectly abbed werewolf and emo-dork vampire passive-aggressively slap-fight over you.” And it’s what comes through loud and clear in the movie version of The Hunger Games, which turns out to be a pleasing mix of throwback sci-fi and modern cultural critique.
At some point in our future, thirteen “districts” (mirroring the original thirteen colonies, perhaps?) rebel against the government using nuclear weapons. As punishment, each of twelve districts must offer up two teenagers (one boy, one girl) for a deadly tournament called The Hunger Games, in which the winner will become a huge celebrity, and the non-winners die. (Readers of the book might be able to tell me why there were 13 rebellious districts, yet now there seem to be only twelve; it’s a mathematical detail left unexplained onscreen.)
Our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hails from District 12, where coal-mining is the professional specialty, and roadkill is what’s on the menu. So basically, Appalachia hasn’t changed much. (Born in West Virginia, I have earned the right to say such things.)
Katniss, incidentally, is a word that sounds a whole lot like Caithness, a district of Scotland with strong warrior heritage. Pixar’s Brave, coming soon, depicts a Scottish heroine as handy with a bow as Katniss. Coincidence, or irrelevant tangent to this review? Maybe both. But expect a lot of young girls to start asking to take archery classes.
Katniss the character enters the games as a rare volunteer, in order to preempt the selection of her young sister who would probably not last an hour in any kind of Thunderdome scenario. The male “Tribute” from the District is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who has built up his strength hauling sacks of flour. (If you’re thinking how much fun it would be too see a giant prawn named Christopher Johnson as the Tribute from District 9, you are probably not the movie’s primary target demographic. But it is a happy thought.)
All Tributes are taken to the Capitol, where they briefly get a taste of the good life – think of District folk as a dirt-poor 99%, while the 1% who live high on the hog resemble giant human Skittles candies whose style has been dictated by Otho from Beetlejuice. Amidst this almost-literal clown show, contestants have a limited amount of time to train and accumulate sponsors in acting-showcase-style mini events, before being thrust into a 2.0 upgrade of The Truman Show, a forest-and-mountains virtual arena whose night sky is a giant digital grid. Also, it has genetically engineered wasps with hallucinogenic poison – a clear example of scientists having too much time on their hands. Ask any Appalachian, er, I mean, District 12 citizen: using resources to make wasps meaner and more annoying is a dick move that benefits nobody. Except maybe a certain contestant at a certain point in the movie.
It’s true that the whole “reality show death match” concept has been done before in movies, but has it been done in something that the tween fanbase for this film has seen? And has it been done on a grand scale that ties in so many other things? I’m gonna say no. In a manner not seen in mainstream sci-fi for decades, the movie both hypothesizes some deliberately hilarious futuristic fashions and imagines that modern art will one day be a style used to kill you. It also deftly inverts some of today’s genre hallmarks: the anti-Hogwarts Express to the Capitol which leads to brutal life lessons rather than magic classes, say, or the way the sarcastic tagline “may the odds ever be in your favor” is constantly and emptily delivered like an evil version of “may the Force be with you.” I can’t tell if the moment that appears to be referencing Spinal Tap‘s “go to 11″ is actually meant as a joke or not, but it’s funny.
Donald Sutherland’s president seems surprisingly un-savvy for such a stratified, media-centric cautionary tale (his derisive response to the idea that everyone loves an underdog – “I don’t” – is great but would NEVER EVER get him elected in real life), but since he isn’t given much backstory it’s hard to go down that road of complaint too far. It’s Woody Harrelson who steals the show as retired champion Haymitch, an unrepentant drunk who nonetheless has much to offer when it comes to gaming the system.
But this isn’t just some sterile social satire. Eventually we must get to the killing, and director Gary Ross actually has some excellent little scares up his sleeves (Seriously, that fireball rules. I’m still conflicted about the monster dog, though). Much has been made of shaky-cam scenes which unfortunately seem calculated to keep a PG-13 rating by rendering the violence less comprehensible. It’s annoying and silly – this is still a film that’s far from bloodless, and it has kids being killed in it; a PG-13 for this is still, by any objective standard, B.S. Hey, remember when Battle Royale was considered unreleasable in this country because it had teens killing teens? The Hunger Games isn’t the rip-off that some cynics would like to believe, but they have enough in common that at least the ratings disparity is suspect.
In the end, it’s the power of combined elements that makes The Hunger Games work. If it were just the arena battles, it would feel redundant. The media mockery alone would make for a dull epic franchise. Mash them up, add retro elements and grand CG-scapes, throwing in good performances all-around from the cast, and you have a winner that may yet manage to hit all four of the mythical marketing “quadrants.” Better yet, it may put an end to the myth that fanboys just want to hate on any film series that girls like. In turn, maybe girls will actually demand better franchises, especially if they take to heart the whole message about becoming a better media manipulator.
BTW, book fans, why IS the death match called The Hunger Games?