Hunger Games (US - BD RA)
When Gabe plays Hunger Games he usually just ends up feeling bloated...
The nation of Panem, formed from a post-apocalyptic North America, consists of a wealthy Capitol and twelve surrounding districts, each one poorer than the last. As a punishment for their failed rebellion, each year, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are selected by a lottery called ‘The Reaping’ to participate in ‘The Hunger Games.’ These participants, or ‘Tributes,’ must fight to the death in a pre-selected arena until only one remains alive. The games are televised throughout the districts, and the victor is rewarded with fame and enormous wealth. When her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old girl from District 12, does the unthinkable and volunteers for the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The world is quietly moved by her sacrifice. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son who Katniss remembers secretly giving her bread when her family was starving, is also selected. Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, where they are mentored by a drunken former Games victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and learn that the higher cast players they’ve been put against have been training for the Games their entire lives.
Gary Ross made his name as a Hollywood writer mostly for a series of light-hearted comedies for grown-ups and as a Hollywood director for two incredibly filmic, often gorgeous motion pictures – Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. I didn’t know much about Suzanne Collins’ books when he was hired to re-write and direct Lionsgate’s blockbuster adaptation of incredibly popular young adult series, but assumed he would soften the supposedly sharp edges of the text. He ended up taking practically the opposite approach. Hunger Games occasionally recalls the beauty of his previous films (Katniss’ mutant-wasp-induced memories of her father’s death, for example), but mostly opts for a brutally documentarian-like Grapes of Wrath meets Orwell’s 1984 kind of thing. The hard-vérité camera work is definitely a good choice for the material and plays especially well to Ross’ concept of maintained subjective focus on his lead character.
Problems crop up when the style is so overdone that it appears that perhaps the director and his editors don’t actually understand how to tell a coherent story. The wavering, shaking camera turns into something of a parody of type, that only really works during the film’s first hour. The more bizarre Collins’ world becomes, the more the extreme camera work plays against type and the more clever these choices appear. It definitely feels like something is missing when the actual games begin and we’re thrown back into a familiar forest world where the pseudo-documentary style doesn’t stand apart as unexpected. The film’s relatively modest budget does rear its head when it comes to the digital effects, but this could’ve been avoided, had Ross maintained better control of his stylistic choices. The much bigger issues arise when Ross tries to shoot action and the chaotic, super close-up camera shake turns the screen into a nauseating wash of earth tones. Sometimes this works as an effective way to disguise some of the more graphic violence (an R-rating would’ve been a death wish for this particular film at the box-office) without dulling the impact, but mostly just causes literal headaches that last beyond many of the film’s more positive memories.
The film has been criticized for being too long. I mostly agree with the sentiment, but the problem is a bit more complex than just cutting material from the book, which, like most books, is too long to film as-is. The first hour ticks by quite efficiently and creates a tight, two-act structure that sells the concept and characters. At this point even Ross’ shakiest camera work doesn’t damage the tight fibres of the narrative flow. This structure would seem to imply that the actual Hunger Games would be the third and final act of the film, which it sort of is. Problems arise when the games act is itself split into an additional three-act structure and winds up lasting an almost feature length runtime all on its own. This additional film, so to speak, features the bulk of the action and most of the fan’s favourite sequences, but it also runs into huge bouts of episodic storytelling, and big dips in momentum. This is also the place where even people like me, who didn’t read the original book, can tell that the source material is being clipped for the sake of a theatrical runtime. The fact that the biggest lull (the unproductive romantic time in the cave) precedes the truncated, wet-noodle climax certainly doesn’t help.
The post-9/11, sending children off to war, and 99% verses 1% political allegories of The Hunger Games are so plainly stated that they almost don’t count as subtext. There’s also no mistaking the author’s stance on the issues. The politics are heavy-handed enough to chase away adult-aged intellectuals, but the book and movie are aimed at a low enough age level that subtlety may’ve fallen on deaf ears. Anything to get the young ones thinking without bashing them over the head with indoctrination is a worthy effort and nothing Ross or Collins does comes across as particularly dumb. Besides, heavy-handed allegory is a long-running pulp science fiction tradition and it’s only fair to allow The Hunger Games that same latitude. The only times I find the allegorical elements particularly clumsy are those where characters are forced to spout exposition that spells out every inch of the metaphor for the audience, and these tend to be few and far between. The sequences where Katniss is prepped for the Games and objectified before the wealthy world are perhaps the most potent of these heavy-handed allegories, specifically because it speaks to a bevy of issues pertinent to the young girls that love the movie so whole-heartedly, including body-image and celebrity worship (the film’s contempt for reality television is downright rabid). The whole ‘being popular will give you an advantage’ thing doesn’t teach the best lesson, but it is definitely among the better story elements in terms of character development. Besides, there’s an alternate reading of the theme, which sees a lower social class member demanding attention from the ignorant silver-spooners.
Since the time Collins’ books started eating into the Harry Potter and Twilight pies it has become popular to compare The Hunger Games to Kinji Fukasaku’s film adaptation of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. Until I actually saw the film I was in this boat, but the comparison isn’t really fair at all. Both stories recall long running gladiatorial, dystopian, and corrupt ruling class tropes – tropes with actual historical precedence. I suppose one could run down a pedantic list comparing and contrasting the films, but, in the end, The Hunger Games actually has even more in common with Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man and Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, both of which owe a debt to Robert Sheckley’s short story ‘The Prize of Peril’. The only specific twist on the ‘most dangerous game’ motif Battle Royale and The Hunger Games share is the age of the participants and that one calls back to William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies.’ It’s fair to say both stories condemn violence as well, but the film versions treat violence very differently. Ross goes out of his way to never exploit the child-on-child violence that kept all the major studios away from a Hollywood remake of Battle Royale, while Fukasaku celebrates the gory fountains of blood and subverts his film’s underlying message.
There are more amusing comparisons to be made between lead heroine Katniss and Twilight’s appropriately maligned Bella Swan. Both characters are the subjective, narrative centers of their young adult literature universes and both have been referred to as role models for young women. The difference is that Bella is largely defined by her vulnerability and dependence on other, usually male, characters. Katniss isn’t just a generic strong feminine character, she’s a self-sufficient, self-made leader. Her relationships with the men in her world aren’t defined by googly-eyed, unrealistic, teenage romance. At times her character swings a bit too far from the Bella character at the risk of Peeta’s character (and, I suppose Gale, who is barely a character in this movie), but the Twilight films have left such a void such sacrifices feel mostly warranted. Katniss is also portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, one of the strongest young actresses working in Hollywood today. It’s seriously just a matter of time before she wins her first Oscar. Kristen Stewart has her talents (it’s genuinely too bad that the Twilight films are threatening to ruin her career before it gets a chance to blossom), but she can’t rise above the limits of Bella as a character. Lawrence is such a strong performer that she steps beyond even an already interesting character, and carries the entire film on her shoulders during the weaker last act.
The Hunger Games was shot on traditional 35mm film and for the most part shot to totally embrace the format’s grain. Steady, fine grain aside, this is an incredibly sharp transfer, swimming in texture and detail from the front of the frame to the far off background, assuming the focus isn’t pulled too heavily one way or the other. There are a lot of big close-ups throughout the film, so most of the finer details are of the skin, hair, and clothing texture variety, but there are some lovely background details throughout as well that press the format to its limit. Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern make it a point to embrace grain, but they also fully embrace the possibilities of digital grading processes. Colour quality is mostly washed out, appearing some where between white and blue, but the Capitol City setting introduces a wide array of neon and pastel colours that offset the base blueness quite well (though the blue itself does tend to infiltrate the black and white levels pretty often). The contrast of elements is most impressive early in the film, when Elizabeth Banks’ hyper-pink make-up and clothing pops so sharply against the pale blue of District 12 that she practically appears to be a digital special effect. The Games section of the film introduces rich forest greens and more even contrast levels, which is occasionally a problem for the darker details. Usually, however, contrast is set pretty high in both the rough and slick environments, which boosts the sharpness quite a bit. The high contrast does leads to some minor sharpening side-effects, specifically haloes, but these only crop up on rare occasions and are actually most plentiful during the film’s somewhat mushy climax.
Hunger Games comes fitted with a strong DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. The contrast of quiet wildlife ambience and boisterous sci-fi noise is the mix’s strongest asset, especially considering how pointedly quiet so much of the film is. Quite often, the sound is utterly squeezed out of the picture to better represent Katniss’ mindset. Likely the coolest of these effects is one where she is interviewed before a freak show of a crowd. The cheers are heard as they play out in her head, objectively muffled, yet the stereo and surround channels don’t lose any of their enveloping qualities. Most of the other aural highlights pertain to the aforementioned natural and unnatural contrasts. In the forest the buzz of nature keeps the channels busy, while space age machinery offers more directional and LFE support. The boom of the cannon that announces character deaths and cuts through peaceful bird chirps is a particularly strong example, as is the extremely busy forest fire and killer dog sequences (which are the closest the track comes to demo material). James Newton Howard’s score is presented richly on the track when needed, but doesn’t get a lot of heavy play in comparison to other aural elements. This isn’t a problem, however, and perhaps the best thing about the music is how sparingly it’s used. The most dramatic moments could’ve been easily flattened by a wall of melodramatic goo, but, for the most part, Howard and Ross hold back for something subtle that builds. There are other occasions where the production takes the opposite approach and cuts all sound outside of Howard’s steadily rising music from of the scene. The best example of this is the massacre at the cornucopia, where his simple melodic choices give the brutality of the sequence a vital melancholy component.
The extras are almost entirely delegated to the second disc of this two-disc set, and begin with The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games (2:02:00, HD), an extensive, eight-part behind the scenes documentary. ‘Countdown’ covers the pre-production process, including hiring Gary Ross as a co-writer/director, adapting the book into a filmable screenplay, and storyboarding. ‘Casting’ sort of speaks for itself, and covers the process of gathering actors one by one. Design covers the logistics and art of the film’s visual plan and production design, including costumes, make-up, and sets. ‘Arena Ready’ covers stunts, training, and pyrotechnic effects. ‘On Location in Panem’ covers the process of shooting on location in North Carolina, including set dressing, signing autographs for the local extras, and scary wildlife. ‘Effects’ specifically covers the digital effects processes and their integration with production design, including concept images and process comparisons. ‘Post Production’ covers editing, music, and sound design. ‘May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor’ covers the film’s release, advertising, and fan reactions. Interviews include Ross, Lionsgate president of production Alli Shearmur, producers Nina Jacobson, Robin Bissell, and Jon Kilik, Scholastics publisher David Leithan, co-screenwriter Billy Ray, actors Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravistz, Wes Bently, Isabelle Fuhrman, Alexander Ludwig, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Jacqueline Emerson, Willow Shields and Elizabeth Banks, casting director Debra Zane, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, make-up designer Ve Neill, VFX supervisors Sheena Duggal and Scott Farrar, production designer Phillip Messina, stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, editor Stephen Mirrione, sound designer Lon Bender, and critic Drew McWeeney.
The featurettes begin with Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and the Hunger Games Phenomenon (14:10, HD), an extended interview with Scholastic’s publisher David Leithan, some of the cast and crew members, teachers, students, fans, and critics, who discuss Collins’ inspirations and the book’s themes. Letters From the Rose Garden (9:10, HD) shifts attention to a long letter Donald Sutherland about his character’s motivations wrote to Ross after finishing the book trilogy. Controlling the Game (5:50, HD) sees Ross and other filmmakers discussing the movie-specific invention of the ‘game room.’ The featurettes section also includes critic Elvis Mitchell’s interview with Ross (14:30, HD), Preparing for The Games: A Director’s Process (3:00, HD), a look at the director’s shot list practices and an unfettered look at the propaganda ad that plays in the background during The Reaping (1:30, HD). The disc is completed with three trailers, a poster gallery, and an image gallery.
The Hunger Games is an occasionally ugly film that suffers a huge lapse in momentum and quality during its extended third act, but when it works, it works better than the vast majority of the ‘book of the week’, young adult movie adaptations hoping for a piece of that post- Harry Potter pie. In fact, it’s even better than the first two Harry Potter movies, which says something for the quality prospects of the next two movies in the series (though I’ve heard mixed things on the quality of the latter two books and Gary Ross will not be returning to hone his vision for the series). Lionsgate has put plenty of love into this release as well. The video quality embraces the cinéma vérité look without sacrificing colour quality or detail, the DTS-HD soundtrack is subtle and sharp, and the extras are extensive, not to mention surprisingly sophisticated.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 18th August 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English (Optimized for Late Night Viewing), Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: The Wold Is Watching: Making The Hunger Games, Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon, Letters from the Rose Garden, A Conversation with Gary Ross, Controlling the Games, Preparing the Games: A Director's Process, Propaganda Film, Marketing Archive, Trailers, Digital Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama and Thriller
Length: 142 minutes
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