By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 26, 2012 at 12:05PM
If you heard the sound of popping champagne corks and cheering in Los Angeles over the weekend, it’s more than likely that it was the celebrations over at Lionsgate HQ. The mini-major were built on low-budget genre fare like “Saw,” but hoped that their adaptation of young-adult publishing phenomenon “The Hunger Games,” co-written and directed by “Seabiscuit” helmer Gary Ross, would push them into the blockbuster game for the first time. And boy, did it ever. In only three days, it surpassed “Fahrenheit 9/11” as the company's biggest ever grosser, taking in around $155 million, making it the third biggest domestic opener of all time, and the most successful non-sequel ever. What’s more, with mostly positive reviews and an A-grade Cinemascore, the stage is set for two sequels that will be licences to print money.
While the majority of reviews have given the film the thumbs up, we’ve been more torn here at The Playlist. Indeed, we ran two reviews of the picture ahead of release -- a near-rave from Todd Gilchrist, and an evisceration by Gabe Toro. And the rest of the team are just as split -- some liking the film a good deal, some coming in very negative, and the majority somewhere in between, with more mixed feelings. In the efforts of compromise, we sat down round the office espresso machine and came up with a vague consensus on the five things that made the film work, and five that need to be improved on by the time that follow-up “Catching Fire” rolls around in November 2013. Spoilers ahead, and may fortune ever be in your favor.
5 Things That Worked
From the very beginning, “The Hunger Games” made the right decisions. Instead of some ridiculous “newsreel” footage of near-future battles or a CGI-enhanced prologue, we get a series of brief, cryptic cards describing the games, and are then immediately introduced to the world. “The Hunger Games” is amazingly focused, point-of-view-wise, and the opening scenes remind us heavily of Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated breakout turn in “Winter’s Bone,” giving off a vibe more Southern Gothic than science fiction. The dirt and grime is palpable, with people living in copper-roofed hatches and hanging their clothing out to dry. Gary Ross' naturalistic camerawork gives these early scenes a you-are-there immediacy, and everything is presented with a matter-of-fact bluntness that is utterly believable. Another reason these early scenes work so well is because Ross doesn't cut away to other districts, to see how the other tributes are taking the news of their inclusion in the Hunger Games. It would be easy to do this, a very cinematic conceit, but Ross wisely keeps things with Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen, continuing this laser-like focus for virtually the entire film. It works incredibly well and grounds things in a very real world, aided by the fact that many of the more gonzo elments of the novel have been jettisoned (for example, the beasts that chase the tributes towards the end of the games were, in the source material, genetically engineered from the dead tributes, and had the faces and eyes of their fallen foes -- the big nasty wolf/dog thing works just fine, thanks).
2) ... But Not Too Realistic
Which isn't to say that "The Hunger Games" is all stoic social commentary and relatable crisis, because when the movie switches locations for the middle section, it's all sparkly Futureworld stuff with opulent costume and make-up design. These were initial red flags when the trailers and television spots started to roll out – a combination of phony, multi-colored Edwardian wigs, glam rock make-up, and costumes louder than ten Def Leppard concerts. But it works, for the most part, because of the world its in, with the Hunger Games themselves serving as a kind of psychedelic "American Idol," a glossy combination of televised sports and public execution. It also adds some much-needed fantasy elements to a story that is fairly grim. These flourishes are intoxicating to look at (we loved the subtle golden glitter that lined Lenny Kravitz's eyes) and hint at historical details we're never allowed (why did the powdered wigs and make-up come back?) It plays up to the political subtext as well, creating an opulent, decadent world of spoiled dandies who would have fit right at home in the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, one that couldn’t be further from where Katniss and Peeta grew up. All this outlandish stuff looked odd in trailer, but absolutely works in context, and adds to the character development of our heroes, as we watch them interact and reshape themselves in front of the television lights. But most of all this section serves as a much needed breather, where humor and color are filtered in before the grueling, visually bleak third act.
We don't have daughters (as far as we know, anyway), but if we did, we'd be less than delighted by their choice of cinematic heroines for them these days. As far as tentpole fare goes, for the most part, we get the same old love interests -- perhaps a bit spunkier than they might have been in the 1950s, but still normally left to be saved by whatever superpowered soap graduate they're nursing a crush on. An example? Bella in the "Twilight" series, a woman defined entirely by the men in her life, in a seies that presents sexual politics that feel positively prehistoric. And that's one of the reasons we're so delighted by Katniss Everdeen being the lead in what's looking like one of the top grossing films of the year. Embodied in yet another terrific performance from Jennifer Lawrence (an expected strong turn in a cast with some nice performances from some unexpected places -- Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks and even Lenny Kravitz, of all people), she's actually a little prickly on the surface, but we can clearly see that that comes from a lifetime of nothing but hardship. However, tough as she is on the surface, from the moment that she volunteers to go to near-certain death to save her little sister from the Games, you love her unreservedly. And throughout, her determination, self-assuredness, vulnerability, resourcefulness and her reluctance, nay, inability to rely on anyone else, much less a man, only makes her more and more appealing. And unlike Lisbeth Salander, her nearest competitor, she's never sexualized or lets herself become a victim. The last time we had a female lead who could be this kind of role model was, what... Ripley in "Alien"?
4) Timely Subject Matter
While it might seem that every other film in the multiplex is science-fiction themed, most are action films with fantastical trappings. The best of the genre uses out-there conceits not as excuses for CGI-heavy setpieces, but to talk about the world we're living in, and that's one of the things that sets "The Hunger Games" apart from the pack. Even more so than when the book was published in 2008, the film feels very much of its time, with the concept of the wealthy, spoiled elite of the Capitol lording it over the rest making the film the first blockbuster of the 99 per-centers, and the brewing rebellion undoubtedly reminiscent of last year's Arab Spring. Ross doesn't overplay the parallels, which is exactly how it should be: they're clear as day without any extra help needed. And the writer-director has plenty to say about the nature of reality TV, with establishing your own narrative and playing the crowd proving just as important to survival as being able to spear a 14-year-old in the chest (the pre-Games interviews being undoubtedly reminiscent of "American Idol" sob stories). Not only that, but we've also got discussion of the way in which such shows, and indeed entertainment in general, help to pacify an underclass to be happy with their lot. None of these are new ideas, exactly, but they're well integrated without hitting you over the head, and as it's increasingly rare to find blockbusters that are about anything other than their opening weekend numbers, something like this with substance has to be celebrated.
We have to confess, with the man behind "Seabiscuit" at the helm, we were waiting for something manipulative and sentimental, full of stirring music and overplayed emotional beats. In fact, we were impressed how far Ross and his cast manage to underplay things. It obviously helps when you have actors of the calibre of Lawrence or Woody Harrelson, but the director also does a lot of work to that end, dropping out the sound and, like its characters, not dwelling on the tragedy of death of children in a world where it seems to be so commonplace. And there's a surprising level of ambiguity in the central romance too. Far from the soulmates of similar films of its type, the "star-crossed lovers" of Katniss and Peeta seems to be a PR move first and foremost, a cynical, if understandable, plea for public sympathy that initially comes from the latter, a romantic lead who rather than being some brooding hero, is a scared little boy prepared to do what he has to do to survive. While his feelings do seem to be genuine, it's unclear, even by the end, if Katniss is genuinely returning them, or if it's been a marriage of convenience -- she suggests their "Romeo & Juliet"-style suicide pact not because she can't bear to live without him, but because she guesses that the powers that be would rather have two winners than none at all. With movie romances still generally fitting the prince-and-princess template, it's an admirably opaque approach to take.
5 Things That Didn't Work
1) Excessive Shakey-Cam To Get The Rating To PG-13
Look, we know Gary Ross is a smart guy who knew what he was doing, signing on to an adaptation of a novel about kids murdering kids with the absolute guarantee that it earn a PG-13 rating. We just wish he came up with a better solution other than, “We’ll shake the camera around so no one knows exactly how horribly people are dying.” This causes two problems. One, it goes for PG-13 by presenting consequence-less violence -- we see some movement, we see some pushback, and then a body falls to the floor. It’s all very videogame-esque, and the only surprise is that the corpses don’t simply just fade away into nothingness. And from a creative perspective, this approach is simply tired and no longer fresh. We want to watch "The Hunger Games," not be in The Hunger Games, and it’s about time directors, even Oscar-nominated ones, quit thinking that they were Paul Greengrass. Shaky-cam is not the answer, particularly when we’re dealing with a film that takes on the darkly satirical concept of children murdering children.
Obviously, yes, we all know this. The fans who read the books told us so, and if not, the ad blitz pounded it into our heads. But aside from a throwaway line from Haymitch about goods and services, we have NO idea what it means to win the Hunger Games, or why they’re even called that. Why bury the single reason this game exists to focus on closeups of Stanley Tucci’s teeth? Haymitch himself is a former winner of the game, and it turned him into a functioning alcoholic with, by default, the best hair in the Capitol. But what did it do for his District? What did winning do to HIM? Aside from the drinking, he seems perfectly functional despite surviving an onslaught of child murder. And there seem to be (government-mandated?) sponsors for this event, but several lines of dialogue are wasted on Katniss needing to “clean up her act” in order to get sponsors, and all that screentime is merely used to explain two measly parachutes that drop into Katniss’ path. And by the end, (spoilers, of course), Katniss and Peeta return home as... conquering heroes? Are Districts accustomed to kids returning home murderers, or even losing one or two kids? Guess not, if we’re judging by the one riot apparently inspired by the death of pint-sized Rue. Do THEY not know what The Hunger Games involve? Basically, it just seems like the core idea of “The Hunger Games” seems incredibly underthought by this filmmaking team.
3) Lack Of Nuance In "Bad" Teens
As soon as the Hunger Games begin, it’s Teutonic-looking Cato Voorhees who unloads on his fellow peers, taking out several within moments (although it’s hard to tell, as he has an identical counterpart, albeit one who dies off a little earlier). Eventually forming an alliance with the similarly-bloodthirsty alpha teens in the group, they all cackle and joke their way through the forest looking for Katniss. The film leads us to believe there’s a great difference between Districts, and it would have been interesting to see that manifest itself within the personalities of the competitors. Unfortunately, none have much personality save for Cato, who merely comes across as William Zabka with a machete, leading to a final moment where he announces his character development in one quick pre-death line, suggesting that he was a self-aware killer the entire time. The rest of his crew comes across about as expendable as the Funky Bunch, there to glower, scowl and pose as they attempt to go after Katniss, the only one in the Games who seems to realize she’s there to support her District. And then there’s little Rue, who is written as something of a wordless guardian angel, and later a martyr for Katniss, even though there’s absolutely no reason why either person should trust each other given the circumstances. When there’s more character in Wes Bentley’s beard than in your film’s pivotal supporting characters, you might have an issue.
Staunch defenders of 2003’s “Hulk” jumped for joy in the final reel of "The Hunger Games," when the mutant poodles in Ang Lee’s film found cinematic soulmates in the fanged CGI creations let loose at the end of “The Hunger Games.” In the book, there’s a way to make this work. In the film, we know the architects of the Hunger Games have mastered using advanced technology, but you can’t wait until the film’s final twenty minutes to reveal they also know how to play God. When they go bleep blop blorp into a computer and spit out fake-looking steroidal mutant dogs, it reeks of adapting something without fully understanding it (and these canines do admittedly serve a far more specific purpose in the book). The pooches weren’t the only dodgy effect, however -- far-away shots of the Capitol make it look like a Sega CD background, while there were no laughs in our theater quite as loud as makeup expert Peeta somehow melting into the ground as human camouflage. Not likely, guys. We do, however, have a soft spot for moments meant to wow you that land with a thud, and the big reveal of Katniss’ fiery leather getup and dress -- they shoot obvious CGI-flames that defy the laws of physics! -- feels like it should be a triumphant moment, and not a “what are these stupid idiots doing?” moment.
5) The Production Design, Particularly Of The Games Themselves, Is Dullsville.
In many ways, Ross and his team do a nice job of world building, but in terms of making the look of Panem stand out in the annals of sci-fi cinema, someone dropped a ball. Fox must have owed Lionsgate a favor, letting them borrow the same Canadian wilderness that accommodates all their blockbusters, from “The A-Team” to “Wolverine” to even “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,” to shoot the entire second half of the movie in. We’re led to believe the Hunger Games has been successful for seventy four straight years, and these engineers of the Games, who can apparently CREATE LIFE, just stick these kids in what looks like a half-mile patch of land in some billionaire’s backyard? There’s legitimate survivalist drama in the books when Katniss goes starving and has to make tough decisions and sacrifices to stay alive. Here, you can always hear the babbling brook, the trees are apparently extremely easy to climb (or Katniss was bitten by a radioactive Tracker Jacker), and the characters traipse through the same hilly patch time and time again. At the start of the film, Gale suggests that if people stopped watching the Games, they would end. But we have little pity for a populace who will spend seventy straight years watching kids run around trying to kill each other at such a completely boring location. Why not the inside of a volcano? Why not in the Arctic? Why not inside an abandoned gym? Why not literally anywhere other than a samey-looking forest. No wonder game designer Wes Bentley gets asked to fall on his own sword. The games arena is the worst offender, but overall the production design is pretty uninspired, particularly The Capitol, an airless, anonymous futuristic city seemingly reconstructed from unused concept designs from the "Star Wars" prequels and SyFy's swiftly-cancelled "Caprica." It’s a visual medium, Lionsgate, and while we get the desire to maximise your profits, especially as the film was something of a roll of the dice, but it’s time to be a little less thrifty when it comes to the spectacle on “Catching Fire.”
Plenty of you saw the film over the weekend, judging by the box-office returns: so what did you think? What worked? What fell flat? Will you be lining up for the sequels, or steering well clear? Weigh in below.
-- Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Oliver Lyttelton