Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games ( a review )

Entertainment is a pivotal component of history, meaning, culture, and self-awareness. Entertainment is also a profound instrument (conscious or not) of public policy although only in the long term - which is to say only when it counts! As such, I decided to review The Hunger Games. (Minor spoiler alerts!)

The Hunger Games is, in short, excellent. Totally engrossing, utterly imaginative, and completely disturbing. I suspect it's not an award-oriented film but people will love it and already do. It compares quite well with similar dystopian films of the last ten years but it offers something bigger and more conceptual. The Hunger Games is not a trivial film.

While it did not quite have same 'realness' of Children of Men, it paints a bigger picture not unlike V of Vendetta. It does so by shedding light on the relationship between the state, entertainment, and the individual's effort towards survival and meaning. The premise of the film is that after an apparent major war and revolution in North America, a new state, Panem, has emerged with a dominant capital city. The state has created a system of ritual sacrifice where each of 12 districts stage lotteries called 'reapings' where a young woman and man aged 12 to 18 are selected to fight to the death on television.

As I watched the film I was tempted to compare this premise with certain contemporary wars involving the US. Obviously it's not that simple. But it might be...and thats one of many terrifyingly sobering insights hidden in metaphor throughout the film. As it turns out, Suzanne Collins, the author of the original books upon which the film is based, had a somewhat similar idea. As the story goes, she was changing channels between reality TV shows and footage of the Iraq war and the two subjects blurred in an "unsettling way". It was at this moment where Collins initially conceptualized Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist (played by Jennifer Lawrence).

What is most striking about The Hunger Games is that it comes at a point in history where the forecasts of past from such thinkers as Aldous Huxley, Michel Foucault, George Orwell, and Karl Polanyi seemed to have proven somewhat accurate in foreseeing contemporary industrial and post-industrial life under various forms of administrative government. Even more revealing is how these thinkers have been accurate about the rising power of the state and the falling power of the individual to conduct his of her life. Although descriptions of the future are always destined for failure, the hypotheses that instigated these descriptions seems to have been proven more true than not as though they are merely confirmations of what we see changing before our very eyes.

The Hunger Games very clearly addresses related issues such as the management of human will, the creation of public illusions, and the regimentation of the human body. In a pivotal scene that presumably sets the subtext for all three books, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) give a warning to Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley), the 'Head Gamemaker' or producer of the games. The warning is that hope "is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous." The film has many poetic moments such as this.

Another comparable film is Running Man, which I saw as a boy in 1987. The moral distance between the real 1987 and the dystopian vision of 2019 portrayed in Running Man is smaller than the moral distance between the real 2012 and the dystopian vision of about 2100 portrayed in The Hunger Games. And that's a very disturbing idea.

If you examine the sterilization cases in North Carolina, various trends in policing the homeless and foodless, a recent Google patent request that involves using 'environmental conditions' in your home to tailor advertisements, a newly released high-tech Samsung TV that can read your facial expressions and recognize your voice, or last, CIA Director David Petraeus's recent statements regarding the ability to spy on people through their own "personal and household devices"...if you examine these stories, they provide anecdotal evidence that an incomplete but meaningful scientific dictatorship is increasingly possible. Given the economic instability across the planet, the nature of new jobs in the US, rising inequality, global food and water insecurity, you can see other similarities between the story in the film and our own lives. It is for these real and present day reasons that I find The Hunger Games so interesting.

Regardless, The Hunger Games, as a piece of art and art alone, is wonderful. Jennifer Lawrence just about flawlessly holds the film together. A good deal of the cinematography that captures her as a character and a figure is simply beautiful - not to forgot the moving subplot revolving around her protection of a younger competitor in the games named Rue (played by Amandla Stenberg). The pacing of the film is adequate though somewhat off at times. The production design is engaging, especially in the beginning portion of the film; in the capital it sometimes has a digital feel.

Josh Hutcherson is solid in the role of the loyal albeit simple Peeta Mellark. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks, in particular, play their disturbing roles to a T as game show host and premier escort, respectively. Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have endearing moments as Katniss's mentor and stylist, respectively. It is perhaps not a film designed to highlight acting but Lawrence and, to a lesser extent, Donald Sutherland are powerful. I suspect it will be among the most popular films of 2012 and, with its sequels, will yield new and refreshing analysis of the approaching now.

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