Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

"The Hunger Games" is a bloated turkey, an unbroken string of missed opportunities and unintentional laughs that spends its first 70 minutes establishing its parameters and the second 70 violating most of them with internal inconsistencies and gaping logical holes.

The picture takes place in the future country of Panem (not to be confused with Delte or Useir), where every year a teenage boy and girl are selected ("reaped") from each of twelve districts and brought to the Capitol to train for and compete in a televised contest in which their mission is to kill the other 23 "tributes." The survivor returns to great wealth and a hero's welcome; the others serve as payback for the districts' decades-old rebellion against the state. (Even after 2 ½ hours in the theater, don't ask me to explain the connection to hunger. Haven't the foggiest.)

Director Gary Ross and his co-writers give us little sense of daily life in Panem, or of the differences among the districts. Everyone in the higher-numbered, outlying districts seems vaguely beaten-down and impecunious, while those in the Capitol look like they just stepped out of an ad for the Cosmopolitan; but we don't come to know anybody much beyond a surface level.

Jennifer Lawrence plays the heroine of the picture, Katniss (ugh) Everdeen, a District 12 girl who volunteers for the Games when her younger sister's name is drawn at the reaping. Katniss has a boyfriend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose character development consists of silently seeking the pose most likely to appeal to tween girls, but, as you might expect, her male counterpart from 12, Peeta (ugh) Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), cleans up pretty nicely himself. Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernathy, a former winner and consummate alcoholic to whom Katniss' and Peeta's training has been delegated. (Apparently in the future we all get Amish names, so, yeah, something to look forward to.)

During the training, gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and clownish hostess Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks in a no-win role) explain the few rules of the game and suggest that survival skills will prove as important in winning as the ability to hunt down opponents. Finally, after all the setup, the tributes are teleported by tubes to the playing field and we get to watch as an announcer literally counts down the final 50 seconds to game time. You want to talk about riveting cinema? I wasn't too excited when he got to 37, but when he said 29? Goosebumps.

So many things in this movie don't add up, it's hard to know where to start. Well, for one, Katniss would not be allowed to replace her sister, Primrose. This was also the primary fallacy in last year's "Another Earth," a much better film, in which the lead character wins a shuttle flight to a neighboring planet and gives it to a man to whom she owes a karmic debt, as though the trip would be freely transferable. If volunteers are permitted, then the business about Katniss' being the first in the Games' 74 years is even more hooey. (In that economy? There'd be open calls.)

For a big-budget Hollywood movie, you sure don't see the money on the screen. The district reaping takes place in what looks like the town square in Plymouth Rock. Then the kids get to the Capitol and ooh and ah about how "big" it is. By contrast, maybe; but as a national capital it looks more like Wellington than Beijing. Its inhabitants seem largely computer-generated, and all of the movie's CGI feels cheap and obsolete. (A feature of Katniss' hotel room that allows her to replace the city view with other three-dimensional scenes might have elicited wows a decade or two ago.)

Why we're supposed to root for taciturn Katniss or milquetoast Peeta remains a mystery. (Their names alone are enough to incur my antipathy.) From what little we learn of them, several of the others appear more interesting and likable. Katniss has a younger sister who loves her? BFD - the rest don't have loved ones?

Archery is Katniss' thing; she's the mistress of the bow and arrow, though from what we see she's either dead-on or way off. But the movie doesn't know the first thing about archery, except that it's an easy substitute for actual character development. A great movie knows its subject matter backward and forward (as, say, "To Live and Die in L.A." knew counterfeiting) and uses that expertise as foundation for its people and their stories.

Katniss' skill does come in handy, though, once the game starts. (After all the talk about survival, half the field is killed in the first minute in what plays like a game of homicidal Steal the Bacon.) She's got more on her side than manual dexterity, though; this chick is dipped in shit. Not only do dangers that fell others (including killer bees in one preposterous sequence) bounce off her like rubber, but several of her competitors seem to be actively working to help her, often passing up chances to do her in or waiting for her to wake up to engage in combat. (Time is fuzzy here; assuming the game doesn't stop at night, 1) when do the people back home, who always seem to be watching, go to sleep, and 2) why doesn't the game boil down to who can stay awake longest?)

There's a lot of talk in the first hour about having to appeal to sponsors because only they can send useful items into the field of play, an intriguing idea the filmmakers apparently forgot midway through; the only such external help we ever see comes from Haimitch. Several times, the game designers (on a set that looks like it was left over from "Sleeper" and wearing white robes left over from the Heaven's Gate cult) introduce deadly weapons (fireballs, pit bulls) aimed solely at Katniss in a way that compromises and cheapens the structure of the contest.

Stanley Tucci (borrowing Chris Tucker's outfit from "The Fifth Element") and Donald Sutherland round out the kitchen-sink cast as, respectively, the MC of the Games and the President of Panem, the latter an ineffectual part in which Sutherland threatens Bentley not to let Katniss, a high-district tribute, win the competition; he mouths vague platitudes about how all the outliers have is a spark of hope, which must be contained. It's actually more likely that a pol seeking to keep the outliers down would arrange for one of their number occasionally to win. When (spoiler alert) Katniss does inevitably take the crown, Sutherland's reluctant compliment that her loved ones "must be very proud" is as devoid of menace as of meaning.

By the end, Katniss and Peeta have, of course, fallen in love. They come home to 12 and Gale, now no more than a distant memory, has nothing left to do but strike a few final swoon-inducing poses. We've spent almost as much time with these people as with the soldiers of "Saving Private Ryan," yet know nothing about them or the way of life to which they return. Over a decade ago, on a shoestring budget and in half the runtime, a little movie named "Series 7: The Contenders" took the same idea - a fight-to-the-death reality TV show - and pulled it off with wit and humor. Here, there's not even an underhand reference to "District 9." A cat food joke, say. Anything.

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