Retro Review: The Hunger Game Series
So, the grand finale of Suzanne Collins’ young adult juggernaut, The Hunger Games, is slouching its way towards cinemas this weekend. I’ve already made my recommendations for movies you should watch that I personally feel captured aspects of this genre better, but despite having sat through these films, I’ve never managed a full review. So here it is, our review of the series.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Plot: In a post-war America, now named Panem, the surviving populace has been splintered into 13 districts, each producing specific materials to supply an opulently oppressive central bureaucracy called the Capitol. After one of the districts rebels, it is obliterated and the Capitol institutes a punitive reality show called The Hunger Games, where two children from each surviving district must fight to be the last survivor. They are rewarded with celebrity status, while the population is given entertainment and an unsubtle reminder how vicious the Capitol can be if they are provoked.
This year, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) represent district 12, after Katnis volunteers in place of her younger sister. The rest of the film shows how Katniss, a young hunter, learns to outsmart and out-compete the game, ultimately defeating not only her opponents, but the cruel whims of the Capitol.
Acting: Not bad, actually. J. Lawrence is effective, though she feels like a character outside of this world, like a young woman from our world dropped into a nightmare version of reality who needs to learn its rules and customs. Her sister, played by Willow Shields, has always felt more organic to me, perfectly at home in this fictional world. There are many delightful cameos from big names, such as a malevolent show-runner played by Wes Bentley and a venomous arch-villain played by Donald Sutherland, but Josh Hutcherson manages to stand out in my mind. He feels like a real citizen of Panem and a real person at once. No action hero, he must rely on strategy and forged alliances to survive. His character is easy to hate, which is why I’m surprised Hutcherson manages to be both pathetic and empathetic.
Cinematography: The visuals in the first film are less impressive than the rest of the series, but manage to contrast the washed-out and bleak districts against the gaudy and glittering Capitol nicely. The action sequences have decent flow and don’t overuse special effects. Overall, effective without being mind-blowing. The score is likewise decent, though hardly memorable.
Final Verdict: The Hunger Games assembles so many tropes from the YA genre, it is easy to pillory it as a cynical cut and paste effort, but this overlooks that THG manages to pull off each of its borrowed aspects (love triangles, children with special destinies, dystopian setting, cartoonish villains) well. It doesn’t break the mold, but it does use its ingredients to create a satisfying confection.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Plot: As the first ever co-winners, Peeta and Katniss must continue the ruse of being young lovers that helped them to survive the first game. While Peeta begins to take this role to heart, Katniss simply wants life to be as it was. Used by the Capitol as propaganda, the two are whisked around the districts, where they begin to see the true toll of the district system. When Katniss attempts to push back against her role as Capitol mouth-piece, President Snow creates a special Hunger Games where former champions must again fight for their lives. Cue a repeat of the first movie.
Acting: Once again, more of the same. Lawrence feels a bit more at home, though still an outsider. This time, minor roles such as Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci get more time to really express themselves in their parts, creating a stronger ensemble. As many of the former champions are needed in the next two films, they are also more fully fleshed out, though only Sam Clafin’s Finnick really rises to the level of a full character.
Cinematography: Brighter and louder. The Capitol is more gaudy, the districts more grey, and the fashions more eccentric. The action sequences, though relegated to the final 30 minutes of the film, are loaded with more explosions, CG, and bloodshed. Music hasn’t changed much.
Final Verdict: A new director attempted to balance the world-building of the first 3/4 of the film with the action sequences audiences expected, to limited success, and they never really fuse. While it is nice to get a deeper feel for the politics of Panem, the final product feels like a drawn out remake of the first film.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)
Plot: Having escaped the second Hunger Games with the aid of a nascent rebellion located in the supposedly destroyed District 13, Katniss must come to grips with survival outside of the Games. Peeta has been taken captive, and the Capitol has obliterated District 12 in retaliation for Katniss’ actions. Wracked with guilt and fear for Peeta, Katniss becomes ineffectual and despondent. A ruthless attack on a hospital full of rebels galvanizes her into accepting the role of figure-head for the rebellion, but she remains a pawn in a larger game, used by the rebellion much like her celebrity was used by the Capitol. When she is finally reunited with Peeta, his harsh treatment at the hands of President Snow finally gives her the anger needed to take the fight to the Capitol on her own terms.
Acting: Except for Peeta, pretty bland. Philip Seymour Hoffman smirks his way through his role as the media-mastermind of the rebellion, and Julianne Moore seems like a caricature of her better performances. Nobody comes off as likable or trustworthy. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, the oft neglected third leg of the love triangle, really fails to make much of an impression though he is ostensibly the main protagonist while Katniss sulks this one out. Hutcherson steals the show in his brief appearances and in the shocking violence of his portrayal as a tortured husk of his earlier character.
Cinematography: For the first half of this film, awful. The story is delivered by lines of dialogue apparently addressed to nobody but the viewer. The characters re-hash the first two movies’ plots into mid-air, and nobody seems to be capable of a conversation. Furthering this disconnect is the use of hard cuts, where a line of dialogue is uttered and suddenly the scene changes. It really feels like we’re watching a story synopsis (like the Star Wars crawl) being read aloud with abrupt scene changes happening during the reading. Much like the last film, once the action actually happens it is decent, with a nice action sequence involving a rescue operation being memorable…but it is interrupted by more story set-up constantly. The acts of rebellion are intense, but only offered in brief punctuation to the dry sermon-making of the main characters. At least the series finally has some memorable music in the form of a folk song that recurs throughout the action.
Final Verdict: It’s a set-up! Quite literally, this film is stage directions, getting all of the pieces into place so that the final installment can focus on the action of the final confrontation between the rebellion and the Capitol, and between Katniss and President Snow. There are some nice moments here, but they are buried beneath all of the heavy lifting that the dialogue attempts to get out of the way before the actual show begins.