This is going to be a long one as the analytical part of me seeps into my criticism. If you want the bottom-line recommendation, go see it, and save this review for when you have more time.
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Reviewing a movie like Hunger Games is like McDonalds posting the nutritional facts about their menu; it is not going to stop people from eating their food and this review is not going to stop you from seeing Mockingjay. And why should you not? The first two were great with a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and good direction. Give or take a few issues of theme, the series is an interesting satire of Reality TV and the system of social class.
As an adaptation, I cannot attest to any changes from book to film because I have not read the books. My judgment will be based on the film alone and how it relates to previous installments.
The story picks up after the end of Catching Fire where Katniss has been drafted into the rebellion against President Snow. The story centers on her becoming a propagandist tool to inspire the rest of the Districts to join the reclusive District 13 against the Capitol. Plutarch, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and another entertainment director named Cressida, played by Natalie Dormer, work together with Katniss in the production of emotional and convincing messages to spread throughout Panem.
The tension and conflict of the story comes from the chess match played by the rebels against the Capitol. While one side has Katniss, the other has Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson. When she puts out a message displaying the atrocities of President Snow, Peeta is shown on camera denouncing the rebels and asking for a cease-fire. With every message, his physical condition deteriorates, along with Katniss’s willingness to participate in the cause.
Like the previous two the strength of the film is Jennifer Lawrence. This time she plays Katniss with an air of helplessness, as she is unable to really participate in the fight. When she does, her loved ones and innocents are put in harm’s way. It is an interesting spin on her stubborn, yet damaged character.
Performances were generally good all around. The synergy between Hoffman and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch was a great watch as they worked to make Katniss a genuine symbol of revolution. It is a shame we lost such a talented actor. Julianne Moore did her best as the stoic and contemplative President Coin of District 13. Liam Hemsworth was finally given more to do as Gale and shows he can be a decent actor, despite his faults. Hutcherson’s subtly was multiplied ten fold as we see his character very reluctantly participate in a spin campaign under threat of violence.
These are minor problems with the film, including a series-long issue that I will address shortly.
For one thing, there is not a whole lot of action involving Katniss. She shoots down a jet like she did in the trailer, but that is it. I understand she has a more complex role to play in the story, but it would have been awesome to see her impaling Peace Keepers with arrows.
Speaking of action, there are scenes of citizens revolting in the other districts, but not enough of them. Those present are serviceable for the PG-13 rating and also quite good. What they lack is a visceral edge; a sense that the citizens, limited by their technology compared to the Capitol, are fighting their guts out to be free. Had the film gone into Snowpiercer levels of violence, it would have made those scenes far more harrowing, while at the same time giving the film an R rating, and it’s young audience intense, horrible nightmares.
There are also issues with the editing at the climax. The events that took place were hard to comprehend because the scenes jumped ahead and skipped much of what was happening. Later it made sense in context, but it was still disorienting. While the climax was going on, Finnick, played by Sam Claflin, was giving a monologue for a propaganda message. His delivery was so good, yet it was neither seen nor heard all the way through because of the schizophrenic editing. In the hands of a different editor, the climax would have been masterful, combing both the monologue and the suspense of the scene I refuse to spoil.
The biggest problem that has persisted throughout the series is the theme and how it collapses in on it’s own world. Hunger Games captures the exploitative and sensationalist nature of television quite well, but where it falters is the disparity between the rich and poor.
The poor of the Districts are portrayed as ordinary, well-rounded people, and the rich of the Capitol are these pampered elitists wearing layer upon layer of make-up and equally gaudy hairstyles. It is as if the movie is trying way too hard to show the differences between class, while giving the audience a clear indication of who to root for. But at the same time, why does the Capitol need the Districts to do their bidding if they can manipulate the ecology and weather of a contained environment (the Games Dome) with Star Trek levels of technology, that would otherwise eliminate the need for a social class system or labor on a scale as massive as the Twelve Districts?
I understand Hunger Games is technically a satire and satires are supposed to have this cartoonish edge, but there has to be some sense of realism and logic to the world and it’s characters.
Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop had outlandish characters, but they at least had goals and personalities that were believable and did not break under their own weight. Alex Murphy wanted to be a good cop to keep is family fed, Clarence Boddiker wanted to be a criminal to make money, Bob Morton wanted to get ahead on the corporate ladder, and Dick Jones wanted to remain at the top by any means. Everything everybody did in that movie made sense and it was believable in the context of the world.
In Hunger Games, I am forced to question why anyone is doing anything, when the Capitol can grow/change whole biomes and animals at will. It reminds me of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium.
Prepare for an intense digression:
Aside from the poor handling of its theme, one similar to Hunger Games, nothing makes sense. If an orbital platform can generate it’s own atmosphere in open space and sustain itself for years on end, with super heal-everything medical equipment, why does it even need to be around Earth, especially when there probably is not that much to gain from a planet that has been poisoned beyond repair? Sure they find gains in cheap labor, but only to make money that is basically useless. Furthermore, why can it not defend itself from non-citizens attempting to land if it is a sovereign body, in a world where the rule of law and government has broken down planet-side? And on top of that, if you can create your own atmosphere, without the need of an airtight environment, why not colonize the Moon, Mars, or any other planet within reach of your advance spaceflight capabilities? The action sequences are good and Sharlto Copley is delightfully insane as Kruger, but when I have to question everything else on screen, the film falls apart.
End of intense digression.
Coming back to Hunger Games, you can argue that the ridiculous aesthetic and government of the Capitol is the result of whatever catastrophe made the world of Panem what it is. After this disaster, knowledge of serfdom, slavery, mass murder, and ritual sacrifice would have been lost on the survivors generations after, which would give way to the creation of the Capitol/District system. This helps prevent the theme implosion, but you cannot disregard the lack of basic common sense. However, it is still more believable than Elysium.
If you are familiar with the series, odds are you are going to see this. If not and you are looking to get into it (and you should), I highly recommend seeing the last two films before seeing this one. As I said before, I have not read the books and have no idea about any changes to the plot that may discourage fans. In relation to the films, I would say this is the second-best, under Catching Fire. However, if you do not care at all about the series and are reading this just because, I recommend watching Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer for one of the best examples of civil revolt in film. Be prepared for Korean movie violence and Captain America himself, Chris Evans, talk about eating babies.
I am not kidding.