Monday Hangover:
The Hunger Games
By Adam Nayman and Jeff Reichert

Weary determination is Jennifer Lawrence's specialty. In Winter's Bone and now The Hunger Games she sets her jaw and deadens her eyes with aplomb: you can feel her nerves steeling. Her Katniss Everdeen (apparently baby-naming has gone all weird in post-collapse America) is not an exuberant or enthusiastic heroine—compelled by circumstance to volunteer for one of those lethal government-sponsored bread-and-circuses beloved of literary prophets, she's at best a dutiful, desultory killing machine.

Lawrence is pretty good, but it doesn't matter, because to paraphrase Marge Simpson when talking about music, The Hunger Games is none of my business. I haven't read any of Suzanne Collins's best-selling novels, and I'm not 12 years old (not that the two things need be mutually inclusive, so I'm told). So I can't report if the general inanity of the film version—with its sketchily realized dystopia divided between poor coal miners and retro-futurist bourgeois monsters and love-is-a-battlefield theme—is in line with that of the source material, or if something has been lost in translation. I could hazard a guess, but it's probably safer to just deal with what's on the screen. Which is—surprise!—hack work by Gary Ross, a director hired precisely because he has the blandness necessary to bring in a movie about children murdering their peers in at PG-13.

Ross's solution to representing Collins's (theoretically) horrifying litany of kid-on-kid violence is to elide it through whooshing camera moves. Not that I am longing for a movie with a crystalline presentation of underage homicide, you understand. But The Hunger Games' supposed critique of a mediascape peddling attractively packaged death is undermined by how easily it goes down itself. Watching Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci mugging in candy-colored costumes as emissaries of the dysfunctional cultural elite who stage and watch these “hunger games” (the significance of the title eludes me), I couldn't figure out what the hell Ross (or Collins) was going for. An earnest cautionary tale? Stylized parody? High camp? (And was that Lenny Kravitz as a sympathetic stylist-to-the-lambs-to-the-slaughter?).

I was also reminded of Neveldine/Taylor's Gamer, which rehearsed a very similar scenario with satirical élan and a sense of wretched excess. Under the appearance of being totally out of control, that film balanced tones. The Hunger Games, which is scrupulously controlled in the manner of all movies that have the possibility of grossing a hall a billion dollars, can't even find one. —AN

I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at the sight of Katniss Everdeen, mid-hunger gaming, stopping for a moment to roast up a squirrel on a spit. If Ross weren’t such a hack, I’d call it a sly nod to Jennifer Lawrence’s similarly stolid turn as Winter’s Bone’s Ree (baby-naming has already gone weird here in America, my Canadian friend; or are we just post-collapse and haven’t noticed yet?). In that indie darling, as in The Hunger Games, she’s required to provide for younger siblings in the face of her father’s absence and mother’s catatonia, embark on a potentially deadly quest, and cook up a squirrel on occasion. Instead of an intertextual wink, however, the actress’s deployment in this inflated and mutated dystopian sibling to Winter’s Bone is just another bit of proof amidst about 150 minutes of evidence that Ross’s Hunger Games is uninterested in taking chances. Why cast about for an unlikely choice for Katniss when you’ve got a girl who’s already been feted by the Academy for playing the same part? Why overextend yourself establishing an original vision, when you’ve got a marketing budget ready to shove whatever turd you crap out down the world’s collective throats?

Both Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games make entertainment spectacle out of America’s rural poor for the digestion of elites (at least blockbusters and indies can agree on some common ground). The former does so unthinkingly, and though the latter’s narrative feints towards building an autocritique of such rank exploitation, as you’ve noted, Adam, it just doesn’t have the guts to really stick the landing. Which is worse is debatable. Ross never offers anything to make us feel remotely queasy, just the usual anonymous action film vibe, and blink-and-you-missed-it flashes of gore. I can’t say I was ever particularly bored while watching The Hunger Games (which, in the age of the modern blockbuster is so far from a given that it’s practically high praise to say it of any of them), but even its relentless forward march is clearly less the expression of a filmmaker in command, turning the screws ever-tighter on his audience, than the commercial imperative to compress several hundred pages worth of plot into three acts.

Experiencing The Hunger Games makes me long for that blissful Sunday just a few weeks back when I settled into the warm embrace of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, which is already now beating an unwarranted ignominious retreat from theaters and public consciousness. That was a film with vision, identity, and charm to burn. Ross’s blockbuster is wholly anonymous and so poorly directed that it is, especially in its first shaky-cam’ed half hour, almost unwatchable. It’s the kind of film most of its many, many viewers won’t even remember the experience of seeing, at least until the next installment comes around. —JR