THE HUNGER GAMES (Dir. Gary Ross)

Verdict: 3 Stars (out of 5)A Few Weeks Later on Half-Priced Tuesdays

The next teen-oriented mythos has arrived on the big screen! And instead of having a vacuous teenage girl crying about not being able to be penetrated by vampire penis, we have Donald Sutherland enslaving the youth and forcing them to fight to the death in a futuristic cage match for his viewing pleasure. Finally, a real and palpable improvement in the teen fiction department – I can check that off my bucket list!

As every young person knows, The Hunger Games is based off of Suzanne Collins’ series of novels set in the dystopic world of Panem , a country that has risen out of a war-torn North America. The continent is comprised of 12 districts that house the poor working class, and each district is kept in strict subservience to the Capitol, the super-city that houses the political power and weird fashion styles that look like poor imitations of toucan Sam. The Capitol also retains all the wealth produced by the districts. Oh, and of course we have Donald Sutherland’s beard ruling over it all, annually forcing each district to give up a male and female as ‘tribute’ – which means they enter in a cage match with each other and fight to the death to become celebrated victors. These ‘Hunger Games’ seem to serve two purposes: to placate the subjected masses by providing kick-ass entertainment and to prevent revolution by reminding them who holds the real power (it’s mentioned that the ‘tributes’ are given up as a stipulation of the peace that came after the districts revolted a number of years ago).

I expected to really enjoy this movie: the dystopia genre is one of the richest genres out there, and anything slightly reminiscent of Brave New World gets me inappropriately excited. And, full disclosure, I haven’t read the novels, but I assume some of the problems of this movie are problems of the books. The mythos has some odd holes: is there any other reason why teenagers are forced into the Hunger Games other than because we need teenage heroines to make the story fit into the teen genre? It seems ridiculous to have 12 year-old girls being told to murder each other with swords  that look they came out of Braveheart if there isn’t a good rationale behind it. If the objective of the games is to provide maximum entertainment to placate the masses, why not choose able adults? Also, how does the Capitol exert such subjugating power other than having these weird, white soldiers march around looking like poor rip-offs of stormtroopers? And why is everyone so easily accepting of this form of entertainment? It’s weird that the very masses this entertainment is created for are also the only ones who mourn at the violence and pointless death. Actually, the movie shows continuously that the only ones who actually enjoy the Hunger Games are the 1 percenters – the wealthy upper class that wear those weird Tron-like costumes and live in the Capitol.

Thus the games don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to do, and the whole logic of their existence seems flawed, so…why do they exist at all other than to cheaply manufacture emotional and dramatic weight? It seemed like little boys were getting their faces carved up just so that I’d be shocked and start crying…which I admittedly did, but the evil of the Capitol doesn’t seem to possess any really coherent internal logic. Again, perhaps it makes more sense in the novels, but as a movie the entire dystopic world didn’t really make sense. There’s also a lot of unexplained phenomena: for instance, the dome that the Hunger Games are held in is controlled by some Skynet-type computer that can control everything inside it (including hurling fireballs out of nowhere and materializing killer dogs from thin air), but how it exactly does this is never even remotely explained. So central conflicts that move the plot along come out of nowhere with no justification, which (ahem) isn’t very good storytelling. I hate movies that make me read books to find answers!

There are some amazing moments in this film: Donald Sutherland is fantastic as a jaded, quietly-powerful dictator, and he brings an incredible nuance to his role and makes you realize that he’s forcing you to be morbidly fascinated by his totalitarian power. This is one of those Tony Soprano roles: a bad guy played by a brilliant actor who makes you feel guilty for kind of liking them. Stanley Tucci is characteristically brilliant as the Hunger Games commentator, and Jennifer Lawrence – who I hated in X-Men: First Class for ruining the Mystique character – does pretty well overall playing the heroine Katniss Everdeen and makes you emotionally invested when it matters. The key issue with her is that you can sometimes really see her trying to act, which means that even if she’s doing well, you’re aware that she’s playing the part and making the process visible…which is annoying when you actually want to be sucked into the terrifying world where kids knife-fight each other at the behest of an old man.

There are also incredible moments that make me feel immersed in the world, its conflict and its characters – for instance, when some of the child-players die the districts rise up in solidarity to resist the system that condemns their youth as fodder for entertainment, and that scene made me want to join that fight. Seeing their unique hand-signal for love and respect move from the arena into the districts forced me to actually care about the contestants and the traumatized populations they came from. These classic dystopic moments do exist in the movie and make it worth seeing.

But this movie was also very frustrating because, in the midst of these incredibly poignant moments of repression and resistance, the movie makes you very aware that you’re watching a teen movie. Meaning that after the moment where the populace rises as one to resist subjugation, we have a scene where Jennifer Lawrence has some painfully-bad dialogue with the boy (Peeta) from her district. Teen angst and behavior has never been more inappropriate. For instance, a group of contestants in the Hunger Games’ dome form an alliance and become the principal antagonists – they ruthlessly kill the weaker, often younger, players and hunt down Katniss with no remorse. Their actions should be portrayed seriously as an evil that is produced by their forced participation in the Capitol’s ‘game,’ but they are made out to be the actions of selfish, petulant teenagers: they flirt with each other like preteens and laugh like third-grade kids who stole someone’s lunch money. They snidely ask each other after murdering a young girl, “did you see her face? She was like, ‘oh, please don’t kill me!’” [insert snicker].

If we accept the movie’s flawed premise that forces these kids to murder each other with dark-age weapons, those moments of killing should be conveyed to the audience in a much more horrifying way that does justice to the brutality of the act as opposed to portraying these teens like they’re in a high school cafeteria! The teens seemed to murder each other as a form of school bullying, when it would have been more appropriate to have them kill each other for more base, powerful, and malicious reasons. This was my biggest problem with the movie: that it trivialized the true horror that this dystopic world could have produced.

It’s like having Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four fall in love with Julia because she reminds him of the girl he never got in high school and not because she’s one of the few people that totalitarianism hasn’t forced Winston to distrust. I mean…really? WHY is every movie centered around teens just an extension of the high school environment? There is a life for teens beyond the civics class!

Overall, the movie produces some poignant and affecting moments right out the dystopia handbook, but that can make it all the more annoying when it decides to obnoxiously remind you of the fact that it’s a movie for teens..and thus needs to make room for self-esteem issues.

Movies that do it better: Planet of the Apes (original), Minority Report, Blade Runner, Gladiator, A Scanner Darkly, Soylent Green, The Matrix, World on a Wire