Saturday, March 24, 2012

Panem et Circenses: Signal Watch sees "The Hunger Games" (2012)

When Survivor launched in 2001, I don't think Jamie understood my revulsion to the concept.*  But I'd grown up watching Arnie's 1987 blockbuster, The Running Man, based on a Steven King short story, and had internalized a bit of what the somewhat clunky (yet awesome) story had to say about us.

The idea of "bread and circuses" isn't anything new, and clearly The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins (no I did not read the books) was aware of this as she penned her book, naming her nation "Panem".  And, Signal Corps, do not take offense when I say I'm not sure that The Hunger Games (2012) brings anything new to the screen.  I don't think originality is where the film succeeds (and it does succeed), but in its excellent and unflinching execution (pun not intended) as well as the performances of young and mostly unknown talent.

In many ways, the movie carries the same story as everything from Gladiator to bits of John Carter, but in many ways it reminded me most of the unnoticed, entirely forgotten American Dreamz (2006).  American Dreamz played on the insane popularity of American Idol, a flailing leadership, the ties between celebrity and leadership and the machinations behind legitimate government, popularity and the madness of crowds and those who stand to benefit from managing all of it.

Where The Hunger Games succeeds is where American Dreamz perhaps never had a chance.  American Dreamz had the temerity to not bury itself in allegory and an adventure story that would shield it from scraping across the sensitive and exposed nerves of the audience with its implications.  The Hunger Games uses just enough of the trappings of the familiar of "reality" programming, the us vs. them that comes with gaps in wealth and those who are able to use sleight of hand to manage the media/ games to keep the public of all stripes amused and bring together a unity through entertainment at the awful expense of those playing the games.

Since Shelley put the spark of life back into shambling dead flesh, what science and speculative fiction has always done best is raise questions via allegory that seem to be too difficult for us to grapple with lest we break down into pedantic shouting matches.  Its the undangerous simulation and exploration of how we might really feel or what we might really think about certain ideas, perhaps at their core, without being shouted down by those who have something to lose.  Does the film and book suggest something about the nature of us, right now?  Or perhaps something universal just using the trappings of our current trends, technologies, tastes?

We're not so far away from the days when arenas were built for bloodsport instead of football games, and its hard to ignore the numbers cheering for MMA, boxing, even the theater of Pro Wrestling, let alone our taste for violence in film and television.  We love to pick sides, to watch competitors, pick our heroes and villains in everything from baseball to fashion design and cooking.  We treat politics no differently, identifying our heroes and villains (and readily believe fictions about both).

And at the end of the day, there are always massively more losers in this game than winners.

The movie makes no bones about the ugly separation of wealth from poverty within the supposedly same nation, of the hedonistic pampering those at the top give themselves and with how the ease of life and excess has led to obsessions with fashion, manners and entertainments unthinkable to those who are wondering where their next meal will come from.  And, of course, the alien confusion of those experiencing the hedonism for the first time, as well as the notions of those who've always lived it who do not see the relationship between the privilege and the luxury of fashion and manners.  And beside the doors and walking behind our foppish elite we see the omnipresent riot-geared law enforcement, of course.

The Hunger Games are as much about the ridiculous trappings that match the expectations of glamour on the part of upper echelon want to see from their stars as the violence of the Arena, and so the poor country mice are dressed and primped like dolls all on their way to slaughter, an interesting echo of watching stylists have their way with contestants on our own "reality" shows.

I'll be curious to see if either Fox or MSNBC decide that, much like in the wake of The Dark Knight, that their side is the one being represented by our protagonist.  When that happens, I always think the take-away is "what you mean is that we actually agree.  Its not our goals which are different, its the ways in which we think we need to get there".  And in a way, that's heartening.

As I mentioned, the cast is excellent.  The mostly unknown Jennifer Lawrence (already twice the actor of what's-her-name from the Twilight films) of Winter's Bone fame** never gives in to teenage dithering or exasperation at her situation. The adulthood foisted upon her by circumstance is well conveyed in what could have been another Mary Sue role.  Whether taking cues from Lawrence or director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), the rest of the cast also falls into line, and even when coming off as a punk gang, its with youthful arrogance and swagger that feels no less deadly and high stakes.  As a director, Ross manages to express the concepts indirectly, through context and clues, adhering to the power of showing rather than telling.

I'd argue that in the past ten years sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction haven't just opened up to women, that they've become majority stakeholders in creating tentpole franchises such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and supporting the more popular superhero franchises such as Spider-Man and Iron Man.  As a guy who grew up not blinking at characters with names like Chin Manstrong in his science fiction, I admit that its taking some getting used to buying characters with names that sound like they should have all the "i's" dotted with hearts, like "Katniss".

I would also note that the movie never really asks Katniss to get all that messy.  Even her weapon of choice, a bow and arrow, should keep her from ever getting blood-splattered.  I bring it up, because this is usually one of those places critics like to go, and while Katniss is most certainly bodily threatened from close quarters, a bit of deus ex machina keeps her from ever having to make a decision about getting stabby.  Perhaps this is discussed in more detail in the book, or pops up a bit more by book 3, but in this movie, it feels a bit like a cheat to keep the protagonist's hands conveniently clean in a movie that doesn't give anyone else that option.

The movie is not unflawed, it has its weaknesses.  But there's also far, far worse ways to spend a couple of hours at the theater.

*sorry, Survivor fans
**no, I never saw Winter's Bone


JAL said...

"Winter's Bone" is streaming on Netflix and is as good a modern take on noir as I've seen.

Steven said...

Your review was legit, no Signal Corps ire was raised.

I thought that even as I read all three books that there really wan't to much original in this (cf. 1984, The Wave, Brave New World, The Giver, et al). But that's something special about literature and art: we need the same artistic concepts to be re-presented but lensed into the metaphors of *our* time. The Cather in the Rye may well have said everything "Digby Goes Down" ever aspred to say, and ten times better, but those looking for that message don't want to hear "this has been said before." They want someone to make the story real to them and, perhaps more importantly, /for/ them.

LIke you said, it wasn't flawless, but it's a much more well-constructed film than "Twilight" or the other dreck we're expected to like.

RHPT said...

I can't help make the comparison to Battle Royale, although they are different movies in almost every way but the concept.

The League said...

Yeah, I actually have the DVD of "Battle Royale" in from netflix, but agreed not to watch it until after we'd seen "Hunger Games". I haven't seen it yet, but I actually have a long history of dismissing "Hunger Games" from its initial publication as a ripoff of a favorite movie and novel most Americans were unlikely to have been aware of.

I generally don't like to talk too much about something if I haven't seen it or read it, but it should have gotten a mention.

The League said...

@JAL - now added to the streaming queue. I've been trying to see it since an NPR story a few years ago.

@Steven - As I'm aging out of the target demographic for what has been my traditionally favored faire, I'm getting my head around what it means to see the same stories told in new ways, be it The Hunger Games idea of the rebooting of the DCU. Intellectually, I'm okay with it.

Perhaps because of my own interest in trying to find sources for where story elements come from, I do get a bit a bit tweaky about the resistance to learning about "what came before" or seeing those prior iterations.

At any rate, I'm always glad to see a bit of a healthy dose of skepticism regarding government, mass entertainment and common wisdom injected into mainstream movies, even if its like sneaking kids vitamins in their Flinstone Chewables.

Simon MacDonald said...

I haven't seen the movie yet but I have read all 3 books and I really enjoyed them. Katniss seemed to be a fully developed character. I wonder how well her internal monologue gets translated on screen. Should be a fun watch.

I kinda like the fact that Katniss uses a bow and arrow as she would be completely over matched by most of the other tributes when it comes to a head on physical confrontation.

The League said...

The movie does set up her proficiency with a bow & arrow in the nigh-magical/ isn't-that-convenient method I think is fairly common, but it mostly works. I challenged it only because this is a pretty bloody movie about people getting their hands dirty to survive, and a bit like how I think about the use of firearms, the bow & arrow manages to keep her physically/ psychologically separated from the kill. In a movie about children killing children for no good reason, they go out of their way to make sure she's justified in her kills in order to keep her the hero, which actually works. She isn't Cato out there hunting folks down. But beehives and arrows... it seemed a little easy, if that's the word for it.

I don't know about the internal monologue, but even when she's not speaking, Jennifer Lawrence does a good job of conveying her thoughts, even if its by remaining stoic and the director's choices of cut shots. She feels reasonably well developed, if a bit mary sue-ish.