The scene is set in a dystopian image of the future whereby years of conflict means that North America is now known as Panem, a nation made up of 12 segregated Districts governed by the futuristic and wealthy city of The Capitol.
Once a year each district randomly select one girl and one boy between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a fight to the death in an act they call The Hunger Games. The Games are broadcast live to the nation in a totalitarian bid by the Capitol to retain control and inflict fear in the people, masked as a televised inspiration of hope and a tribute to the years of conflict since passed.
When the younger sister of District 12 resident Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is plucked at random to compete in the games, Katniss instead volunteers herself to be the female candidate selected in a brave attempt to spare her sister almost certain death. She accompanies Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) who is the male candidate, both of whom are escorted to the Capitol to meet their fate.
The Districts are incredibly poor in contrast to the riches of The Capitol, lacking basic technologies, facilities and accessibility to mass-produced food, its citizens having to work for sustenance under the watchful eye of the government’s armed forces. As a vision of the future it is surprising to see the District citizens are living in conditions more resonant of 19th Century America, the contrast here between rich and poor, the hungry and the fed.
The Capitol however is a lush, technologically advanced metropolis, its garishly dressed and disgustingly indulgent residents blissfully unaware of the concerns of the world outside its walls and living without the watchful eye of armed guards. It is here where the second part of the film focuses on the entertainment element of this practice, in a surreal Eurovision/X-Factor style backdrop where points are awarded on appearance, character and flare.
Each of the 24 candidates are groomed to this effect, trained on how to survive the Games and treated to a luxury lifestyle in preparation, with particular attention on how best to establish their public image.
Suddenly, the focus pre-battle is a popularity contest, an incredibly dark mockery of the sort of talent shows where style over substance is key and public opinion is given prominence.
The film takes its time to elaborate on this concept of celebrity, the absurdity of it all being carefully played out so this isn’t simply another teen movie about status anxiety and the approval of peers. It gives the need to conform a desperate survival twist in preparation for the main event. Once the game begins however the focus shifts rapidly and all of this is quickly forgotten as the harrowing reality of killing 23 teenagers hits home.
Throughout much of the film we adopt the perspective of Katniss and seeing the violence unfold through her eyes simultaneously makes the experience unsettling yet exhilarating.
The opening sequence is brutal, frenetic and unforgiving, the importance of each split-second decision is executed with urgency and desperation. Taking the view of the Panem audience and seeing children who never stood a chance being violently slain by their adult counterparts adds to the disturbing hopelessness of the situation. Switching between the perspectives of audience and participant simply heightens the tension and it makes for a more rewarding experience.
Some critics/cynics have dismissed The Hunger Games as “Battle Royale for kids” owing to its 12 Certificate rating and lack of guns. I would argue that Battle Royale, with its cartoonish violence, jagged sub-plots and being littered with clichés, is already “Battle Royale for kids”. Hunger Games deals with very adult themes in a very uncompromising way, despite its insistence on reducing the amount of gore and the lowering the guidance rating.
The recurring themes of greed, totalitarian authority, culture of celebrity (including it’s quite literal shelf-life), imperialism and the prospect of hope measured against fear all serve to show this film is more intelligent than it is perhaps being given credit for.
Superb performances from Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Liam Hensworth and even Lenny Kravtiz (above) are all not only uncharacteristic roles, but perfectly executed by each of them. Jennifer Lawrence steals the show respectively, the perfect blend of heroine and anti-hero who doesn’t succumb to the concerns of your average female protagonist. She is strong, resilient, compassionate & torn continually between the horror of her predicament and a survival instinct she’ll need in order to get back home.
A fantastic movie that shouldn’t be judged on its age rating or it’s absurd comparison to other ‘teen’ genre movies released in recent times. This stands out as a science fiction triumph, dystopian, critical and compelling, and is one thrill ride I’m glad did not pass me by. Just be sure to buy popcorn beforehand.
All that’s left to say… Happy Hunger Games. Odds are that this is one of the best films you’ll see all year.
The Hunger Games is Released in the UK on 23rd March