Damned if I’m wrong, but The Hunger Games isn’t exactly the first of its kind. Minus points for originality, then, drawing reference left, right and centre – The Running Man, Gladiator, THX: 1138 and the astonishingly similar Japanese bloodbath cult-classic Battle Royale. But this is mainly the source novel’s major hurdle, re-imagining a post-apocalyptic North America steeped in totalitarian dystopia where mass entertainment revolves around reality-TV fight-to-death survival olympics. Let’s face it, it’s a recycled scenario, but where The Hunger Games really succeeds is in its set-up. Plus points to Gary Ross, who obviously understands the gears of cinema and produced a standalone piece that eschews swathes of prose into a convincing, urgent and often chilling piece of sci-fi cinema. The opening scenes, followed by the town-square ‘reaping’, are executed in cold and calculated precision, all cinéma vérité, shaky documentary camera aesthetic unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster fodder that renders these scenes free from gloss. Even when Ross takes us to the Capitol, the grotesquely decadent nucleus of Panem where people dress up like clowns straight out of revolutionary France era, his eye for satire is well and present, allowing to us to glimpse into a world so horrifyingly depraved that the elites’ sole entertainment is a death-match between proletariats.
Such a shame then that the titular ‘games’ that follow is drearily executed that we might as well be rolling our eyes and watching the back of out skulls for sheer entertainment. Praise Ross for injecting a much-needed urgency in the first-act, but when the main action is shot in blurry, handheld, tight close-ups where we barely see what’s happening, it’s a decision hardly rooting for. And depicting graphic violence is no excuse either – it’s a bloodbath match set in a merciless fascist state, not some Teletubbies treasure hunt in the woods. Sure, it’s geared towards the tween culture, but the decision to allow most of the action and deaths happen off-screen only lessen the impact and gravitas. Don’t even start on the rules and physics of the Hunger Games, which can change in a whiff, ruled by a Control Room that can materialise practically everything. Oh yes, of course, I’ve forgotten this is set in the future where they can summon rabid dogs out of dust and thin air to prey on the poor, hardscrabbled competitors. If there’s anything worth our sympathy here, it’s the unusually refreshing protagonist Katniss Everdeen (a remarkable Jennifer Lawrence, who adds depth and weight to the role). Stoic, resourceful and every bit the feminist that other ‘young adult’ heroines are not (yes, I am talking to you Bella Swanduckorgoosewhatevs), Katniss regurgitates the female hero of the modern Hollywood blockbuster cinema. She doesn’t need any man to stand her ground and survive, brimming with quiet intelligence and willpower to strategically rebel against an oppressive, dehumanised system. Hollywood needs more heroines like her, setting better role models for the younger minds, and not just some pale, uninteresting, wallowing wallflower whose paramount goal in life is to have vampire (or werewolf) boyfriend.
A fascinating premise and an intriguing first act gives way to a blandly executed death-match that barely delivers the gut-punch this film deserves. The Hunger Games works better as a cautionary sci-fi dystopia and socio-political commentary on reality TV rather than searing cinema. Go see Battle Royale instead.