Not Hungry for More Hunger Games

The Hunger Games: 3/10

Brandon Haffner

“The Hunger Games” falls into a quickly growing list of big-budget mainstream action films, or BDAMs (for those of you paying attention), that receive positive reviews on movie critic sites yet don’t entertain or interest me in a way that could justify the ticket price.

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Because this trend seems to be rising, I’m becoming less shocked when it happens on an individual basis.  However I still don’t understand the basic cause of the problem.  It isn’t that I’m surprised a film like “The Hunger Games” or “Star Trek” or “Avatar” or “Watchmen” would suck in huge sums of money from the paying public.  Most of the paying public are morons.  If you’ve got a wood block for a brain, and you’re only and always thinking, “that burger looks good” and “that girl is hot” and “those colors are pretty” and “that explosion was big,” then no, of course I’m not surprised when you tell me you liked “Iron Man 2.”  Those people understand the visceral and the physical, not the intellectual or the psychological.

Now, to be fair, although I’m the first one to admit I’m a snob in a variety of ways, of course everyone needs their dumb time.  I like “Evil Dead 2” as much as… well, as much as a few people who liked it a little bit.  Any stupid movies that are clearly aware they’re stupid movies (like “Evil Dead 2”) are much easier to appreciate, in the same way that Novak Djokovic is easier to appreciate now that he’s mature and humble than when he was an arrogant young jackass.  And any stupid movie we grew up with and enjoy for nostalgic reasons also gets a pass.

So why did “The Hunger Games” receive an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes?  Why did Roger Ebert give it 3 out of 4 stars?  In order to make this discovery, let me back up and evaluate what, for me, makes for a successful film.  The ultimate question I ask myself is: 1. Was I engaged, absorbed, and entertained?  Usually that boils down to, 2. Was there rising tension and the ability to empathize?  Usually that boils down to, 3. Were there interesting and dynamic characters I could relate to and root for, and were they put into perilous situations and given obstacles that allow me to suspend my disbelief?  And that suspension of disbelief and uninterrupted tension of the character(s) overcoming obstacles boils down to 4. Are all the basic components and technical aspects of filmmaking coming together (dialogue, sound, effects, makeup, set, cinematography, acting, score, etc.)?

So let’s see.  No I was not engaged or absorbed.  I was bored.

Yes, there is definitely some rising tension, thanks to the constant reminder of impending doom.  The plot vehicle would seem natural for cinema in this way; you start with a group of characters and you know they must battle, be tested to their limits, and only one will survive.  Will it be the protagonist heroine? we’re wondering.  The movie is PG-13, so, probably.  It’s actually a very classic, basic plot, any film teacher will tell you so, despite those who herald the film as “creative.”  Ambitious is another, better word I’ve seen, and it is certainly that in some respects, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The two problems in the first half of the film, despite the tension rising steadily, is that the pace is too slow and that we don’t believe the strange circumstances of our characters.  The information we receive about the hunger games is shallow and insufficient and, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes to us mostly in the form of a kind of educational video, much like the one you might see on your first day of work at McDonald’s.  This new society shoves 24 randomly chosen children into a “The Most Dangerous Game” type of situation in which they must kill each other until one remains.  This sport is televised for everyone’s viewing pleasure, and it seems to be great fun for everyone instead of primitive and horrifying, perhaps save for the relatives of the children (there’s also no explanation given as to the apparent savagery in the blood-thirsty general population; an assumed savagery in a film’s portrayal of a future government is almost expected, but in citizens, I need more information).  Why do they do this?  As a reminder of a past uprising.  So I guess it seems to be that the government very publicly murders 23 of the society’s children to prove a point.  Why no one in the film becomes angry enough to maybe try that uprising again is anyone’s guess.  Surely after years of this, those hundreds of dead children would have touched enough lives for someone to be, at the very least, organizing something in secret.  But there’s no evidence of this either, no discussion of it even, or of the cruelty and insanity of their situation.

Then the pace is too slow getting us to the hunger games.  The uninteresting barbie-like characters prepare to enter “The Hunger Games” without much internal or external conflict.  Most are walking into certain death yet their emotions don’t reflect this from scene to scene.  In fact some of them become rather casually excited about killing other children.  “Did you see the look on her face?” one says to a group of others after they stab a young teenage girl to death.  Maniacal laughter ensues.  Really?  One minute these kids are just typical kids in a blue-collar town, now they’re diabolical killers with no emotions or remorse?

Roger Ebert, despite his inexplicably positive review, touched lightly on this particular issue, if you will, when he cited an absence in the film of an engagement of the clear moral issue that is tossing children of varying ages, genders, and physical ability into a fight to the death.  I might take it a step further and say that’s not just a film flaw, it might actually enter the realm of bad taste.  Instead of the film taking the approach of being critical of society in a dark, brutal way, the film completely ignores the tension created by the moral crisis.  Maybe this side-stepping is an awkward effort to be family-friendly, and it’s certainly in an awkward effort to focus on being an action movie for young adult audiences instead of a psychological or political thriller for thinking people.  Which, to me, makes the depiction of children being mutilated by each other to be kind of offensive, because the film makes the child killing seem like light fare.  The film isn’t sure how to say what it has to say about government or society.  There’s no message.  Is it saying government is too big?  Too small?  People are cruel?  People are dumb?  I couldn’t answer even the slightest vague question about where the movie is pointing its critical finger.

So in that case why are we watching children hack each other to pieces with knives and swords?  For pure action value, like we might watch Bruce Lee or Jason Statham?  I don’t know the answer.  That’s why I couldn’t empathize or suspend my disbelief; I didn’t understand the complacency of the characters, nor did I buy their seeming lack of moral comprehension.  They live in an oppressive society, but do seem to have normal desires and typical interests.  The society clearly hasn’t broken its citizens completely, which to me, would be a requirement for such terror to not only take place at all without an uprising, but to be actually enjoyed by those very citizens.

Speaking of empathy, I’m getting tired of casting crews that seem to sift through the entire population to find the most chiseled, picture-perfect human beings (regardless of their acting abilities) to feature in their action flicks.  Let’s save that for Disney cartoons, shall we?

Dialogue was flat and predictable, the camera was unnecessarily and sickeningly shaky, the effects were mostly bad and cheap-looking, the acting was artificial.  Each character was assigned an adjective and told to behave that way and that way only.  “Strong,” “innocent,” “mean,” etc.  There’s not a single complex character in the film.

So why did “The Hunger Games” receive an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes?  “Top Critics,” those great men and women at the very top of their professions college educated and all, give “The Hunger Games” an 80%.  8/10 of the nation’s best movie critics, not woodblocks or sheep, found this film to be more enjoyable than unenjoyable.  What am I missing time after time?  Is it that the critics have begun to temper their expectations?  Maybe I’m just not old enough yet for that.  I look forward to when I’ve reached movie critic success and I get old and wrinkly and my vision starts to blur and I find everything enjoyable.  Sounds peaceful.

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