Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games: The Year's Most Anticipated Carbon Copy

The whole world will be watching. That’s what the trailers and posters for The Hunger Games promises. It proved to be quite an effective marketing hook, because it seems to be right. The film was released this past Friday and took in over $152 million throughout the weekend. Being an adaptation of a bestselling young adult novel with a fanbase that rivals that of Twilight, the odds were ever in its favor. But does it live up to the hype?

The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen, a rather resourceful teenager from one of the dirty districts of a future U.S. In this future, the government keeps its citizens obedient by requiring each of its twelve districts to offer two teenagers who will fight to the death in a televised event known as The Hunger Games. Why call it the Hunger Games and not the Most Dangerous Game or Mortal Combat or Battle Royale? Because all of those names were already taken, for all we know. The movie doesn’t concern itself with such details.

Anyway, Katniss goes to a selection process known as The Reaping with her little sister. Her sister is randomly selected, but Katniss volunteers in her place. Peeta Mellark, a boy with a passing acquaintance to Katniss, is also selected to represent District 12. The two of them are whisked away to the Capitol to be spruced up and presented to the public in a rather outlandish opening ceremony.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss, continuing her streak of strong performances that includes 2010’s Winter’s Bone and supporting turns in last year’s The Beaver and X-Men: First Class, establishing herself as one of the best and most promising new talents. Lawrence successfully establishes a character that would be fine and worth watching on her own, despite being an ineffective fighter. Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia, The Kids Are All Right) plays Peeta and seems to be getting better and better with each film. Hutcherson’s Peeta correctly exclaims he doesn’t have a chance – both as a character of much interest and a victor of the sport. Together, they’re perfectly acceptable. But I couldn’t help but feel their growing affection for each other was more of a plot device than anything else.

The cast also includes Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland. Harrelson and Kravitz are the stand-outs, the former as District 12’s mentor and the latter as their stylist.

The first hour is perhaps the film’s strongest. We’re introduced to a colorful society brainwashed into deeming a bloodsport between its youths as entertaining as a full season of American Idol, each contestant vying for public approval in order to win over sponsors (an element not delved into enough). After some training and further mugging for the cameras, it’s time for the games to begin. The gravity of the situation begins to sink in and Katniss shakes like a leaf during the final countdown to the start of the game.

That’s where the movie begins to fall apart.

The anticipation and edge-of-your-seat intensity that is built during the final moments before the start of the game is pulled right out from under us once the clock runs out. The scene becomes incomprehensible and we can’t tell what is happening to whom as the camera apparently goes into a seizure. Rather than experiencing the frantic and horrifying scene for ourselves, we’re allowed just the gist of it. We hardly get to see any of the teen-on-teen combat or how they deal with the situation.

Not only that, but before we know it, the environment becomes manipulated by a handful of people with an interactive digital map in a techno control room. Pretty soon, rules are added and then rescinded and creatures are thrown in just because.

Here’s the thing: if a movie wants us to invest in a scenario where teenagers are killing each other and must do what they can to survive that’s fine, that’s a potentially intense situation. But when that is suddenly interrupted by some puppeteers who can manipulate the situation and make any random thing happen – including alter the rules – then it’s really difficult to care what happens, because ultimately it doesn’t matter. I was beginning to wonder if the romance was also a product of some string-pulling. Turns out it was just the writers pulling those strings.

Gary Ross and his trio of screenwriters (including the author) have done a terrible job of establishing a consistent, believable situation. We can’t track how many contestants are left. The fight scenes are incomprehensible. There seems to be very little to this battle than the fight itself. We never see the characters react to the situation in any way other than to dutifully bump each other off or form alliances before presumably bumping each other off later. There’s very little terror, very little ingenuity. What’s keeping the teens from standing still and calling a truce? Are we to believe that nobody has ever acted defiantly or tried to outsmart the game itself?

The Hunger Games aspires to be very little and does a poor job even at that, making one wonder ‘Is this seriously what all the fuss is about?’.

While the manner in which the violence is shot and the manipulative elements of the games are serious issues on their own, it’s difficult to ignore a number of other cracks that begin to appear along with these issues. How can one not be disappointed by The Hunger Games in every other way when the story has already been told with a richer and more effective execution? The comparisons to 2000’s Battle Royale are tough to avoid once The Hunger Games begins to falter. Both films are about a system that was set up in response to a rebellion. Both films require only one to survive. Both films provide the teens with a bag of survival gear, including a weapon of some kind. Both films primarily follow two teenagers in love. You can basically add derivative to the list of The Hunger Games' problems as it marries Battle Royale with a bit of The Running Man.

Check out Battle Royale instead, a film that gets a lot more mileage out of the core concept with far less frills.


Should you see it? Skip.

The Hunger Games is now out in theaters.

(no trailer available)

Remember That Movie: Battle Royale

The novel is about a society where teenagers are forced to battle to the death. Fans, both young and old, need not wait any longer as one of the most anticipated film releases of the year dropped last week.

I am, of course, talking about the Blu-ray release of 2000’s Battle Royale.

Battle Royale, a film so intense the Blu-ray cautions viewer discretion before the film begins, is set in an alternate Japan where society was once on the verge of social and economic collapse. The nation’s youth responded to the failures of the adult world with violence, truancy, and unprecedented rebellion – and not the cool Star Wars variety. The government took drastic steps to restore order by creating the Millennial Reform School Act, a law that dictates several groups of 9th graders will be randomly selected to fight each other to the death on an isolated island in a game called Battle Royale. Only one is allowed to survive. The purpose: to humble the youth and deter any future rebellion through fear.

Nobody knows if they will be selected or grow up to become one of the lucky few who avoid the experience. The public is not privy to the details of the game as it happens and must wait anxiously to see who returns alive.

The story follows 44 students on a class trip. They all pass out on the bus and awake in a strange classroom with metal collars around their necks. Shortly, their former teacher Kitano (played with frightening intensity and casualness by Beat Kitano of Kikujiro and The Blind Swordsman) enters and informs the class they’ve been selected to play Battle Royale. Confusion quickly leads to horror and then obedience. They are shown a darkly upbeat instructional video that informs them those collars around their necks will explode if they: try to escape, attempt to remove the collar, are located in a forbidden zone, or are not the last one standing when time runs out.

Twenty minutes into the movie, a role call dismisses each student one-by-one, tossing a bag of survival gear (including water, food, and a random ‘weapon’) at them, the game has begun and we’re already given a body count as the classmates quickly begin dropping like flies.

Battle Royale is based on the 1999 novel by Koushun Takami, a former journalist. The film may not be as effective as the novel, which put the reader in the terrifying scenario and lead one to ask, ‘What would I do?’. However, the film does have a lot more to chew on than the mindless, stylized gore one might expect. Several character moments either look at the situation from a different angle or speak to one of the film’s themes. We may not get to know all 44 students very well, however, some do reveal themselves a bit to us – and not just before they die, which allows us to care about a handful and also fear the presence of a couple. We also are given a handful of flashbacks that feature family issues or ‘normal’ teenage moments, particularly with two main characters, Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). The film could have benefited from a couple more of these pertaining to key characters, but overall these flashbacks give a nice balance to the story’s horrific scenario.

While we do witness a couple confessed crushes, we also see these teenagers deal with the situation in a variety of ways. Some defiantly commit suicide, attempt an organized truce, form alliances, become suspicious of their closest friends, or think of every possible means of escape. This also helps prevent the film from becoming a thin one-note exercise in mindless violence.

So do the themes. Japanese cinema has a long history of speaking to tensions between generations old and new since World War II (in the book, the first game occurs in the ‘50s). The notion of survival can be attributed to the rigors of both the teenage years and the characters’ forthcoming adulthood. There are also other themes to be found regarding love, sacrifice, and respect. Director Kinji Fukasaku (Tora! Tora! Tora!) also said the film could be interpreted as either advice or a warning to the youth.

As for the violence, while at least half a dozen of the kills are far more brutal than a barrage of bullets, the violence is frequently presented in a matter-of-fact or sudden manner, adding to the reality of the situation. Save for one or two deaths, the audience won’t find themselves cheering over any particular kills.

Battle Royale was released in Japan in 2000 and received several award nominations by the Japanese Academy. It was released throughout Asia and Europe the following years, but didn't hit United States screens until 2011, however DVDs did make their way Stateside long before then through bootlegs, UK distributors, and Netflix. Fukasaku began work on a sequel, which his son completed after Kinji’s death; it is widely considered inferior to the original. Quentin Tarantino has come out as a huge fan of Battle Royale and cast one of the stars (Chiaki Kuriyama) as the villainous teenager Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill.

Of course, it’s impossible to avoid mention of The Hunger Games, a film based on a 2008 book about a society where teenagers are forced by the government to fight to the death. Author Suzanne Collins pleads ignorance of the Japanese phenomenon, citing influences as varied as Greek mythology and the war in Iraq. All I can say is the similarities between the two are uncanny. If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games, do yourself a favor and check out Battle Royale.

There is a Director’s Cut release on a bare-bones Blu-ray that frames the story within a basketball game. I recommend seeking out the Theatrical Cut.


Should You See It? Rent… or buy.

Battle Royale is now available on Blu-ray as single disc (Director’s Cut) and The Complete Collection, a 4-disc package with both cuts of the film, the sequel, and a disc of extra features.