Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cinema Fancy - The Hunger Games

I'm not much of a reader, I'll be honest.  I read a LOT at work, being in Information Technology, and much of it is dry research.  So when I read outside of the office, it's often just articles on the internet or blog posts about my hobbies, much like the stuff I write for this site.  As such, it's not in my nature to go after novels, regardless of how engaging their storyline might be, because casual or recreational reading is just not something that interests me.  I feel no shame in this, it's just not my speed.  I'm more of a comic book guy.  But there are books I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, and there are times I wish I had more motivation to read.  As much as my wife and I have enjoyed the Harry Potter series of movies, there are times when I wish I had read the novels to get an idea of where they differed from the movies.  When I saw the three Lord of the Rings films, I was tempted to go back and re-read the books.  And though I know the 1985 Dune film took MANY liberties (I still love it!), I have read and enjoyed the first novel immensely.  Still, I'd generally much rather watch the "Cliff's Notes" version of the novel in the movie and get the general synopsis and essential story points where I can.


Okay, so it's bordering on trendy at this point to talk about this movie.  I get it.  And no, I'm not trying to get in on the trend, but I was really intrigued by the movie's premise, based on what I had heard about with the books, and the fact that it seemed like a fleshed out version of a short story I read during high school about a "lottery" where someone's name was drawn at random out of the village and eliminated because it was a custom, not just because of a hunger issue or some political ploy.  In any event, the concept itself was interesting enough for me to warrant wanting to go see the movie, at the very least.  With that in mind, my wife and I, along with a couple friends, went to see the movie a week or so ago and I've had time to ruminate on it.

Without going into too much detail or over-simplifying the plot, the story centers around what is essentially a post-World War III country that is made up of what was North America and several large territories or districts.  Each of these districts seem to be made up of a very polarized class-based society where there's a very large divide between the "haves" and "have nots" of the day.  The "haves" want for very little with their lavish clothing and hairstyles, and overabundance of food and amenities.  The "have nots" are left doing all the more menial tasks such as coal mining.  They also end up having to hunt for their food sometimes, as they are often without much food.  This is where we discover the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she is hunting for food for her family due to an absent father and mother who can't function too well on her own.

"The Hunger Games" ares an annual occurrence whereby one male and one female child from each district is chosen at random to participate in a savage contest that pits the youths against one another until only one youth remains alive.  It is a game of fear that allows the "haves" to more easily subjugate the "have nots".  Poor districts (like the one Katniss is from) have kids thrown into the contest primarily as fodder, while richer districts have kids that train for the games all their lives and essentially volunteer for service in the games as a way to honor their district.  Katniss is the first to volunteer from her poverty-stricken district, but only because her younger sister was the one chosen to be in the games.  Thankfully for Katniss, her prowess with the bow and arrow gives her an advantage over just the average kid.

I'm pretty handy with this thing, so don't cross me!

There are a lot of socio-political undertones and overtones in the film.  I think the agenda is largely a left-wing approach that shows the kind of overly classed society that happens when the scales are tipped to far in favor of the upper class, thereby eliminating the middle class and creating the huge divide we see in the film.  I don't necessarily think that the left-wing political agenda works here, however, because it is precisely the more conservative, free-market economy approach that will keep this kind of society from forming.  Socialism, by its very nature, cannot succeed long term without total subjugation of its citizens, because eliminating the drive to succeed will ultimately stifle scientific, engineering, and other advances because the incentive to do so is gone for all but the most ardent, curious, and philanthropic of minds.  That said, this kind of socio-economic fallout would be expected following a major World War, though 74 years after the fact it's a bit hard to believe that there's still THIS much poverty rampant.

Politics aside, the storyline is almost tailor made to cause controversy and get dinner table conversations going.  How can a society, 70+ years after reconstruction following a Third World War, continue to participate in this kind of savagery?  That is the inevitable question that many moviegoers will be asking themselves, and for good reason.  Aren't we, as a society, above all that?  But then, this is not our society.  This is a different world born from different circumstances.  So you help control the lower class people by striking fear in the hearts of parents and children alike by continuing to punish them in this manner.  Why strive to succeed in a district where there's no money, because you can't rise above the poverty line.  Not to mention your kid might be whisked away to die some day in the games.  Life becomes more about pure survival than about relishing any real joy in it.

I was a bit surprised at how disaffected I was about the kids being killed.  Perhaps its because I went in knowing that, perhaps its because it was kids killing each other in a contest they knew they had no choice but to participate in, or perhaps it's because I am less affected by it than I might have been had I been 20 years younger.  The first time I saw The Terminator and watched Arnold smoke those 2 teenagers after appearing on Earth just so he could steal their clothes...well, let's just say I was shocked and a bit incensed.  Why would someone depict that in a movie?  It was only years later that I truly understood the perspective, and so it is that understanding that likely fuels this.  Not that kids dying doesn't affect me; it does.  But I think what affected me more than that is how nonchalant everyone else in the movie was about it, save for the main characters.  Notice how carefully things were planned for Katniss - she only directly killed a couple fellow youths when she was in immediate danger and her life was threatened.  The girl she killed indirectly by dropping the wasp nest down to the ground from the tree-tops wouldn't have happened if the girl wasn't actually allergic to the wasp stings, though Katniss knew that was a risk.  Most of the other kids killed heartlessly, because those that didn't die in the initial run were from the more affluent districts and were kids who had been training for the games their whole lives.  But what strikes me about Katniss and her District 12 accomplice is that they bend the rules as much as they can - never intentionally killing other kids just to win the contest, but actively avoiding conflict until absolutely necessary.  When Katniss honored District 11 by giving the girl Rue a posthumous send-off with flowers and a sign of respect for the cameras, it invoked the kind of outrage and outcry that moviegoers had probably been hoping for, even though the short-lived "revolution" that happens within District 11 is quashed ever so quickly by the police state's forces.

Peace out, homie.

Visually, the movie is at once lavish and understated.  I love the contrast between the impoverished districts and those flowing with riches.  I also love the contrasts between the clean, stylized environments of the district where the games are held and the outdoor locales where the games take place.  I also like how the movie sort of subtly recalls the outlandish, over-the-top fashion sense of Luc Besson's The Fifth  Element, one of my all-time favorite science fiction films.  In some ways, The Hunger Games as a storyline owes a debt to the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Running Man, whether the connection was intentional or purely accidental.  The casting choice was also smart, with a number of unknown names and a handful of actors still toiling in obscurity.  Wes Bentley is enjoyable as the game director, and newcomer Lenny Kravitz (yes, THAT Lenny Kravitz) is understated but plausible as the "celebrity stylist" hired to help make Katniss and her district partner more attractive to game supporters.  Elizabeth Banks is somewhat brilliant as the District 12 Hunger Games spokeswoman - she is gleefully overwrought and excessive, and a beautiful woman is transformed with make-up, hair and clothes (as well as character flaws) into somewhat of an ugly person.

Perhaps the thing that makes the movie so intriguing when it's all said and done, is that it gives us a glimpse into one of the possible futures we face if our world continues toward the path of turmoil, and affords us a unique opportunity to peer into the proverbial magic mirror to see what's to come.  Does this mean we'll have a highly divided class-based society and sacrifice children for the sake of government?  I can't say these things are outside the realm of possibility, given that human nature is more selfish than selfless, and in times where there's very little to go around, the greed of those who have all they need further exemplifies the destitution of those who don't.  As one who hasn't read the book series, I will be very curious to know what they're going to do with the next movie.  With this film having one of the best opening weekends of nearly any film in history, and with it still being a big deal weeks after its release, there's very little chance that a sequel isn't already in the planning stages, if not in the works.  I look very forward to what's coming next in this franchise, because this movie has sparked as much self-reflection in me as both Inception and Limitless - and that's a good thing.

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