Monday, March 26, 2012
The Hunger Games
At its core, "The Hunger Games" is a pretty basic plotline that roughly five hundred action movies have done before. Gather up a group of people in a confined environment, then have them kill each other for the entertainment of the deranged audience at home. Let me just list off the top of my head five movies just like this: the 80s action classic "The Running Man", both versions of "Death Race", a crappy Stone Cold Steve Austin called "The Condemned", the Japanese action movie "Battle Royale"*, and a crappy Robert Carlyle movie called "The Tournament" - and there are probably fifteen thousand more I don't know about. I'm not going to call out "The Hunger Games" for being unoriginal, because honestly, who cares? Everything is a rip-off of everything else. The only thing that was ever orignial was "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and that probably ripped something else off too. All I care about is if "The Hunger Games" can do what those movies did and do it better or in a new interesting way.
The difference between "The Hunger Games" and all those other movies is that they were pretty much solidly unapologetic action B-movies. "The Hunger Games", in contrast, is a two and half hour epic aimed not at goofball action junkies like myself, but instead the teen crowd. This movie comes packaged with the first trailer for "Twilight 5". Now it is interesting to see a more emotional take on the "kill em all on TV" movie, with an attempt to build a whole dystopian future around the idea. In fact, "The Hunger Games" probably could have been the best movie of this entire micro-genre. Unfortunately, for all the epic weight and needless length thrown on the story, its ultimately pretty damn boring. The fight scenes are terrible, the main characters are needlessly flat, and all the side characters are undeveloped. Its a wasted opportunity for a better more awesome movie, I think.
As you can probably guess, I've never read the books. If you have, feel free to flame me in the comments below. Irrational fanboy and fangirl hatred is always welcome here at Planet Blue.
The problems with "The Hunger Games" for me began in just about the first scene, when the truly bizarre costume designs just sort of smashed me right in the face. The first shot is Stanely Tucci wearing a ugly blue wig, dressed in what can only be described as the ugliest suit in the history of the universe. Then we turn to the guy he's talking to, and its this equally ridiculous dude a weird that's at least three-times weirder than Kenneth Branaugh's beard from "Wild Wild West". This made me uncontrollable giggle for approximately two hours and three minutes. Then I realized all this was typical crazy SciFi futurist outfit stuff, and I kinda liked the silliness. Think of the overall art design of "The Fifth Element", crazy campy fun.
As it turns out, "The Hunger Games" takes place in a dystopian rigidly classed society based apparantly on foppishness and ugliness. Whoever dresses the most ridiculously gets to be in the upper class. Meanwhile the outlining towns (called "districts") are limited to either aged red-necks or attractive young main characters. The plotline is that because the twelve districts rebelled against central government, they must be punished every year in a blood sport competition called "The Hunger Games" for no apparant reason. In these Games, a boy and a girl from each district is selected through lottery and then brought to a huge death dome where they fight in the wilderness for the amusment of the clowns that populate the upperclass, and to further terrorize the small towns into never rebelling again. Then one is left alive, and all the clowns get to wait around to next year's death show. I really liked this political background to the storyline, unfortunately most of the world-building aspects of this storyline seem to have been left out for the later movies. As a matter fact, this storyline could have been great, even with the clowns.
Our main character is Katniss Everdeen, runner-up in the Worst Fantasy Name Ever contest, losing out closely to "Drizzt Do'Urden". For now on this character will be known as "Catnip Everclear" because that's slightly less stupid. Catnip Everclear is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who you probably know as Young Mystique from "X-Men: First Class". The Everclear family is super poor, Catnip usually keeps her family alive by hunting using her advanced skills as a member of the Archer Job Class. She also has a brown-haired boyfriend who is introduced early in the movie for no reason - he never does anything. When the Hunger Games lottery comes to town, Catnip's little sister gets picked, so Catnip volunteers in her stead. With Catnip is this incredibly nondescript boy named "Peeta Mellark". Now its time to the go to the city.
For roughly the next hour of the movie we watch as Catnip and Peeta get pampered and prepared to be killed for the amusement of the evil clowns, led by King Clown, Donald Sutherland. They are also introduced to Woody Harrelson, a drunked former winner of the Hunger Games who is utterly wasted by this movie. Somehow in the next hour "The Hunger Games" manages to both take far too goddamn long to get moving and also speeds along too fast at the same time. Anybody who isn't Catnip or Peeta are completey underdeveloped, so when the actual killing starts we really don't know what the personalities of their foes are going to be. There could be time to show the skills of the enemy, maybe give them each a defining feature, but no. And tragically for this movie, Catnip and Peeta could not have been more flat characters. I can't tell you one single solitary personality trait for Catnip, and Peeta isn't much better. Somehow her hairdresser becomes Catnip's best friend (off-camera), but God help me if I wanted to tell you why.
The most colorful personalities by far are those of the adults - their almost as colorful as their clown outfits. But every teenager is mumbly and quiet and dull, even the villains shockingly. Maybe they had personalities in the book, but they're not here in the movie. Every so often you get brief flashes, like this one girl is a sadist, but then she's dead in thirty seconds, so who cares? At one point Catnip gets saved by this one Black boy, and he looked pretty badass and cool. He dies off camera later. The leads of this movie simply don't have the charisma to hold it all together. They needed crazy villains hamming it up to make this movie fun, but that doesn't happen. We needed more moments where Stanely Tucci laughs it up watching kids brutally murder each other, but that's not here. The whole movie is lifeless.
So with maybe half the movie's running time spent, I was now officially bored with "The Hunger Games". But I still hoped that once the actual games started things would get more interesting. Not exactly. In fact, things only get worse in the second half.
You'd think the sight of twenty-four teenagers killing each other in the middle of a deep forest full of evil plants and monster dogs** would be pretty grusome to watch, right? Well, you are going to be sorely disappointed, because the action scenes are - without a doubt - the worst fucking action scenes ever put on camera. And I'm saying that as a man who has seen all four Twilight movies, I know a bad action scene when I see one. For one, in order to keep up a PG-13 rating, the director hides pretty much every moment of real violence. No blow actually occurs on camera. In order to hide this he just shakes the camera like its a bottle of Yoo-hoo. The edits are so fast and so stupid that ultimately any measure of menace or threat out of the fight scenes is totally gone. TheHunger Games begins with maybe ten people getting killed right off the bat in this big chaotic rush for all the weapons - you see basically none of that. Maybe the idea of a gang of bullies going around killing smaller kids could be scary, maybe. But that's assuming I can see any of that! This is inexcusably horrible. They pussied out big time here. Isn't this movie supposed to be about the brutality and evil of this dystopian future? To show us how sick the clowns really are? Well, no, because blood and gore and cold action are R-rated, and R-ratings don't mean money.
Recall the utterly horrifying action scenes of "Drive". The Driver in that movie was a cold motherfucking scorpion, when he needed to kill, he killed. And it wasn't pretty. It was downright scary how brutal he got. That's a movie that worked, because it was unapologetic about itself: people are dying here, and you're going to watch. "The Hunger Games" wants to do that, it wants to scare its audience into fearing for Catnip's life. Maybe even fear what Catnip has to do, because she has to kill every in order to win, including her friends. Luckily all the action is muted and pointless, and all the good characters either die or the rules change so that Catnip can survive morally clean. You can't have a dark world and be squeeky clean at the same time, some of that blood needs to get on the audience in order for them to feel how bad things are. And worse, its not fucking fun! Part of me is with the clowns here, I like violence in my movies - its cool! When you present action this badly its not a good mark for your movie.
Later Catnip and Peeta team up again, either falling in love or pretending to in order to get ratings and the support of the clowns. That's never made clear. I think its more of the later, since it really would explain why their romantic scenes are so goddamn boring. Catnip, honestly, doesn't look like she would ever particularly love anybody, she doesn't seem to care about anything or anybody. What do pieces of cardboard care about? And Peeta isn't any better. The real fun comes out of watching Catnip's brown-haired boyfriend watching blankly whenever she kisses Peeta. Its almost as much fun as those reaction shots of Edward whenever Bella and Jacob kiss.
There is no character of "The Hunger Games". There is no fun to "The Hunger Games". There is no tension to "The Hunger Games". And frankly, even during the big battles and even the climax, I was just bored as Hell. I checked my watch - a lot. To my misfortune, "Hunger Games" is also seriously fucking long, as two and a half hours. I don't know how it manages to be that long, since really not all that much ever seems to happen. There might have been a good movie here, in fact, I know they could have made a great movie of this idea. But they didn't. They compromised to get the PG-13 rating, leaving nothing but a mediocre movie where the least interesting people star.
So afterwards I convinced my friends to go see "John Carter". That was a better movie in just about every way. Except in box office numbers. By the way, "John Carter" is full of violence, and it kept the PG-13 rating. I guess that movies made to be fun and exciting and colorful just aren't what America wants anymore. We want toothless dreary movies that last an hour too long. Then we'll go and watch the sequels.
UPDATE: I've since seen "Battle Royale", and I'm sorry to say, "The Hunger Games" really is a bad rip-off. And "Battle Royale" was pretty much exactly what I was looking for, correcting every mistake I thought this movie made. In fact, its up there as one of the best movies I've ever seen. So screw this American bullshit.
* I've heard "Battle Royale" is really good. I need to see it. Its apparantly the good version of "The Hunger Games".
** Oh yeah, "The Hunger Games" is also a lot like "Predator 3". I forgot about that movie.