The word “tribute” carries several loaded meanings. In “The Hunger Games,” it is that age-old plot device, the blood sacrifice. In the future nation of Panem, it is the government’s way of fooling the populace into love and respect for those in power. According to this film’s offscreen history, citizens rebelled, and societies crumbled as a result, leaving those in power to pick up the pieces and re-write the laws that govern us. To battle against what we can only surmise was a perversion of democracy has led to a future of sacrifice, under the guise of “tribute.”
Civilizations are back to simpler, more primitive times. The T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack and the natty-but-neat wardrobe suggest a Civil War atmosphere (the closing credits music, appropriately, comes from a band called The Civil Wars). It’s there where we meet our action hero, our tribute. The blond teenager Katniss Everdeen has already taken charge of her fatherless household, usurping her ineffectual mother, who stays home and cooks while Katniss hunts bounty for sale. Katniss’ little sister Primrose does not question what seems to be The New Normal as far as gender roles.
Into town comes the Hunger Games committee. Led by “Velvet Goldmine” outtake Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), they come to each of the nation’s Districts to recruit a young male and female for a competition that will pit them against each other to the death, the winner sharing the spoils with their region. Volunteering to keep her sister away from the games, Katniss ends up representing District 12 with unassuming local boy Peeta, whisked away to the big city where poverty is just a plot point on the presumably globally-televised Hunger Games.
As we soon learn, the Hunger Games have been going on for seventy-three years now, each year yielding a new people’s champion from each District. Katniss and Peeta, however, hang their heads. The smallish Peeta feels like the competition is merely a shortcut to the abattoir, while Katniss is mostly concerned with her sister and mother left at home without a provider. At no point is this position a likely fit for strong shouldered Gale, Katniss’ weepy-eyed boyfriend back home. Again, The New Normal.
Katniss’ reluctance to be the poster child for the Hunger Games at first seems like a genuine show of individuality. Why should she be dragged away from her family to become a performing monkey on television? It makes less sense that after years of everyone watching the Hunger Games, it's Katniss that would seem like an anomaly to Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy. As played by a salty Woody Harrelson, Abernathy is on hand as a former Hunger Games victor, though the event appears to have turned him into an alcoholic. A very high-functioning alcoholic who gives Katniss and Peeta a host of superficial tips and pep talks, by the way. If the Hunger Games are the equivalent to “American Idol,” then Abernathy might as well be a faded Kelly Clarkson.
After a publicity dog-and-pony show, Katniss and Peeta are thrust into the game, shoved out in the middle of nowhere with twenty-two other youths. Oddly enough, the movie runs at a punishing length, but the first half feels very much like a movie on its own, as Katniss learns how to work the futuristic p.r. machine. She softens and learns to love herself, and more importantly to be herself, safe in the knowledge that others will like her for who she is. Given the nature of blockbuster filmmaking, as soon as she’s forced to take action, all this character growth is deemed superfluous, and flies out the window.
What’s interesting is this film’s philosophical angle. The morality of killing is shushed away like it’s not a concern for anyone, young or old. But what bothers Peeta, in a quiet scene, is the fact that he wants to stay true to himself, and not surrender his personality to appease the organization. Katniss, the film’s moral compass, lays it down a bit harsher, almost condescendingly so, when she cites her hardscrabble family back home, saying she can’t afford to think about individuality when she’s there to benefit those she’s left behind.
Meant to be selfless (as it no doubt is in the book), it’s a little more pointed in the film. All we’ve seen at home are a bunch of robe-clutching central casting lookalikes, none with any interests beyond hunting and killing for food, and speaking in quiet, earnest tones. But once the characters reach the city, it’s like a “Buckaroo Banzai” convention, where people have senses of humor, loud dress conventions, and outsized personalities, at least amongst the people we meet. In other words, yes, “The Hunger Games” is absent-mindedly fascist at worst. At best, it’s a portrait of two disparate worlds, none of them realized with any real flair or imagination.
Director Gary Ross, who earlier couldn’t find a cliché he couldn’t dumb down in “Seabiscuit,” seems less enamored with the getting-to-know-ya pitter patter, fast forwarding through most of the film’s laborious set-up. The first twenty minutes, mostly told through handheld shaky cam, capture crowds as unthinking line-ups in concise order and tight, well-mannered behavior, in a pristine, almost sterile environment not unlike early sci-fi films like Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451.” But that inspired dystopian nightmare is interrupted by oddly-placed big city gee-whillikers moments, followed by the monotony of the non-stop action. Using the same patch of land repeatedly, Ross’ dull visuals and turgid pacing run their course five minutes into the film’s second half, as Katniss seems to run in circles to avoid her attackers. Close-quarters combat is also a headache-inducing eyesore, a clutter of arms and limbs flying at each other, as if Ross is desperate to avoid revealing any bloodshed in his troubling kid-on-kid milieu. Ross apparently took no notes from his second-unit director regarding hand-to-hand combat, which is a pity, since said filmmaker was just coming off directing “Haywire." His name is Steven Soderbergh.
Ross also doesn’t seem to mind the marginalization of minorities in this curious future world. Much has been made of the controversy surrounding the lilywhite Lawrence as a character descried as “olive-skinned.” What’s curious is that her little sister and mother have perfectly light, unblemished white tones. Later on, there are three roles for black people (and none for Asian or Hispanic, curiously), and one is there to give Katniss an ongoing confidence boost, the other two to save her life. All have no motivation, goals, or inner lives, fueled by their desire to give a hand to this random white girl. Two of them die for it. If you think this is a spoiler, you’re a lot more optimistic about the presence of a non-star minority in a blockbuster film.
What’s disappointing is that, without knowledge of the books, it would be easy to find out that this was an adaptation. The film’s first half takes a hurried approach to introducing a flotilla of colorful supporting characters, all of whom are reduced to spending the second half of the movie watching a screen. All this clutter keeps us from truly knowing our lead character, particularly when she gets involved in a confused love triangle involving a curious beta-male angle. It would be an intriguing story point to expand upon, had the third act not devolved into a CGI monstrosity, turning “The Hunger Games” into any number of bland, poorly-shot YA films in recent years. It’s not much of a tribute. [D+]