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The Hunger Games (2012)

March 31, 2013 Comments off

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More years ago than I care to remember, I was a classical scholar and something of an expert in not only the languages but also the cultures of the Ancient World. Amongst other things, this meant a basic familiarity with the mythology. Theseus was caught up in the dispute between Athens and Crete. Androgeus, the son of King Minos, had been assassinated in Athens. The price of peace was that, every year, Athens sent seven young men and women to Crete as tribute to be fed to the Minotaur. Coming forward in time, here’s a science fiction novel and now film. Ostensibly, this is a young adult post-apocalypse dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins where one young man and woman from each of twelve Districts is sent to the Capitol to participate in a televised fight to the death. The Hunger Games (2012) is the first in a projected series with the second being in production thanks to the massive amount of money made by this film both in the cinema and through DVD sales.

 

This has all the usual faults of a piece of science fiction aimed at young adults. To begin to understand the extent of these problems, let’s meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They like to hunt in the forest around their District’s living area, hence our heroine’s expertise with the bow — there’s no large game, only squirrels and other small mammals. We immediately note the poverty of those in District 12. Later, this is juxtaposed with the high civilisation of the Capitol. It’s always interesting in dystopian contexts, to speculate on how the distribution of wealth and privilege could become so skewed. If, as shown in the historical newsreel, there was a nuclear civil war in which the twelve satellite states turned on the central state, the major population centres would have been levelled. Indeed, with twelve states shooting at one, it’s hard to see how the one could survive at all. Anyway, if this is the old USA, why were only twelve states involved? What happened to all the rest?

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

 

Even if we accept this curiosity, why would the defeated survivors have agreed to rebuild only one? The idea that the defeated rebel states could have been coerced into this arrangement followed up by this tribute system is not convincingly explained. There’s always a delicate balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed. In the parade, we’re told the Districts specialise in mining, power-generation, and so on. This would suggest rather smaller units, rather like a core city with suburbs, yet the train journey from District 12 obviously goes on for hours at high speed. So let’s say there’s a rebellion among the people who dig up the coal for the power-generation people to turn into electricity. If these people are the only miners, sending in troops to kill large numbers of them completely destabilises the interdependent supply system. The oppressive regime can try intimidation, but extermination is impossible until there are sufficient replacements prepared to take over as miners. More generally, has the land not been irradiated by nuclear fallout or perhaps chemical weaponry? Perhaps District 12 is the only area where it’s safe to dig. Worse, the downtrodden citizens in District 12 all look remarkably well fed with no sign of starvation, yet we see only a few pigs fed on reject bread and no obvious farming. Where is all the food coming from, not just in the Districts, but also to support the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol? There’s no way the Katniss we see on screen has been deprived of food even though we do see her apparently desperate for a crust of bread from Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More generally, how can anything grow if this was a widespread conflict involving the use of nuclear and/or chemical weapons? Surely the soil is irredeemably polluted?

 

Now let’s come to the tribute itself. Each year, there’s a ballot across the twelve Districts to pick the twenty-four victims who are sent to the Capitol. Why, you might ask, should there be a “winner”? If the Capitol simply wanted to intimidate the Districts, it could execute twenty-four young people randomly selected every year. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains the tribute is slightly more insidious by offering all participants the illusion of hope — an illusion for twenty-three since only one can survive. This is political nonsense. Surely the only real outcome is to depress eleven Districts who get to see their children killed on live television while the twelfth only gets back one child. Why do any of the victims have any hope? Why are the Districts not more angry? Finally, why must the winners go back to their Districts? Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who acts as mentor to Katniss and Peeta, is still in the Capitol after winning twenty years ago. Why was this drunken streak of misery privileged while everyone else was sent back to live in poverty?

 

If we look back in the cinema, films like Battle Royale, Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man have shown us dystopian futures in which mass entertainment is used to manipulate the mood of the people. It’s the old blood-and-circuses idea from Ancient Rome. So this film flirts with the Capitol being a new Rome as our carefully coiffed victims ride in in their chariots to be greeted by their adoring fans. This is reinforced by the naming system. The game’s manager is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the interviewer and all-round television face is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and stylist Cinna (Lennie Kravitz) (originally a long-serving consul of the Roman Republic).

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

 

When sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s female victim, it’s up to Katniss to volunteer in her place. The other ballot “winner” is Peeta. She receives moral support and image advice from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna. As is required for a young adult heroine, Katniss ranges between surly and spunky in early scenes at the Capitol. Her display with the bow, however, breaks the ice and makes her a popular favorite. Peeta consolidates her star quality by confessing a long-time crush on her. In the end this battle is all about the ratings and she becomes dominant, a fact displeasing to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who fears this spunky volunteer may incite riots among supporters in outlying Districts.

 

When we get to the games themselves, like The Truman Show, the managers of this closed environment can control the day/night cycle. More importantly, they can start fires and force the contestants out of safe hiding places and towards a confrontation with the others. Otherwise one or two could just sit out the contest until everyone else was dead or wounded. Of course, all kinds of outside interference are possible if the government or sponsors permit. But what seems to be achievable is pure fantasy not science fiction. The fires are absolutely controllable, complete with RPG balls that can be shot at people, plus trees that fall on command. At the press of a button, they are extinguished and there’s no sign of smoke damage or burned vegetation during the rest of the film. And then there are these genetically modified dogs. I suppose they must be kept in kennels somewhere and then uploaded. But how are they cleared away so quickly?

 

So where does this leave us? At 136 minutes (including the credits) it’s too long. This is not to say the individual parts are not interesting but, when put together, it’s excessive. The fatal game sequence has its moments and, in strictly technical terms, there’s a certain fascination in seeing how the numbers are whittled down and the final deaths occur. This being a film aimed at a young adult audience, there’s little or no blood shown. The necessary deaths are managed with taste and decorum — many out-of-shot. Similarly the game romance is suitably chaste. Just a peck or two on the cheeks and lips, and lying down together platonically to maintain body temperatures while “healing” takes place. All this is quite enjoyable. But the major failing of the film is to explain how the Hunger Games came to be and, more importantly, how they fit into the current political framework. It seems even the managers are not entirely sure of their roles. The result is snatched scenes of rioting with white, helmeted troops moving in to quell the disturbances but nothing is explained.

 

As a final question, is District 11 racially segregated? In writing this I’m not trying to reignite the racist tweeting over the casting of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) but, when we see shots of District 11, the majority of the inhabitants do seem to be African American. So is this the agriculture District where they grow the cotton? Although it’s good to see African Americans and a Nigerian in the cast, it seems we’re not post-racial in this post-apocalypse, i.e. we do not see a general ethnic and racial diversity across all parts of this state. We spend considerable time in District 12. Why is there no clear racial integration on display? If the film-makers had wanted to defuse suspicion of racism embedded in the structure of this fictional world, all they had to do was show a real mixture of races in District 12.

 

This leaves me thinking The Hunger Games is probably very entertaining for young adults but deeply frustrating for anyone with a fully developed brain.

 

A number of people have suggested that this film borrows a little too heavily from the two Battle Royale films. Here are the reviews: Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII (2003)

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

When the world is working as you hope and want, everything seems to run smoothly. More often, the best laid plans are fit only for mice and men find their’s have gone awry. So it is in the cinema. Sometimes you can see the scriptwriters, director and every member of the cast have been giving their all but the result is a mess. But every now and again, you come out of the cinema feeling everything was just right.

 

I went expecting it to be awful so I find myself in the embarrassing position of having to say that not only is this the best X-Men film in the current series, but it’s also one of the best blockbuster science fiction films for quite some time. Let’s be clear on this. There have been many better science fiction films but, when a film studio trusts a director with an obscene amount of money to produce the film that’s going to set it up for the summer season, this is what everyone wants to see. X-Men: First Class is a coherent narrative that establishes the characters and builds to an excellent climax. Frankly, I cannot think of a better origin story and, this explanation of how Xavier comes to be injured is a pleasing variation on the theme, fitting neatly into the general flow of the narrative.

James McAvoy getting his head round the problem

 

So where are we in the broader universe? In the 1940s, we see the immediate sequel to Erik Lehnsherr bending the gates at the entry to the concentration camps and meet a young Charles Xavier finding a solution to his loneliness in the house that will become the School. As the 1960s start, Charles is in Oxford collecting his postgraduate qualification in genetics, while Erik has become a Nazi hunter. Moira MacTaggert is a lowly FBI operative following a General who may be straying off the reservation. She proves the trigger to start the race that will lead to the mutant-intervention version of the Cuban missile crisis much beloved by conspiracy theorists. I’m not sure I approve of linking Sebastian Shaw to the German scientist who initially provokes and then experiments on Erik but, with his abilities, Shaw makes a formidable enemy for both Charles and Erik to confront.

Kevin Bacon and January Jones acting as if they can read each other's minds

 

Although there’s an inevitable plotline to follow in that young and inexperienced mutants must learn how to control their powers (rather like the kung fu films where the young hero must learn the basic techniques before being able to win in the big contest at the end), this version does it rather well. Using a prototype of Cerebro designed by Hank, the first class that Charles identifies and recruits is callow and insecure. Such were the hang-ups of teenagers back in the late fifties and early sixties. When the CIA facility is attacked by Shaw and two helpers, they are easily intimidated. Fortunately, the death of Darwin is the catalyst for them to learn a better control of their powers. They become more competent but inherently less impressive than Azazel and Riptide.

 

So what’s good? I thought the relationship between Charles and Erik was impressive. I’m not sure whether this is intentional, but Erik’s world view seems to be given the director’s vote of approval. For all his brain power, Charles is presented as cold and manipulative, although his potential to control others is restrained by his many scruples. Coming from a background of privilege, he’s too rational and detached from the world to be likeable. I suppose this is inevitable when you can read the thoughts of those around you. You need barriers in place. Erik, on the other hand, is all anger and fixated by revenge, but he has earned the T-shirt by being there in the camp, having his mother shot in front of him, and surviving. Even though Charles is the essential teacher, showing him a better balance between anger and serenity, Erik is the winner of this particular debate on how to relate to the human world, relegating Charles to the status of useful sidekick. It would have been more truthful for the film to be called Magneto and the Brotherhood of Mutants. In part, this helps explain why Mystique abandons Charles in favour of Erik. She’s simply been a convenient person to have around as a companion when there wasn’t a book to read or a girl to chat up in a bar. She’s not really accepted for who or what she is. Even Beast doesn’t really understand Mystique until it’s too late and his own emergence from the chrysalis of his mostly human body is complete. Only Erik prefers her to be as she is not as others would prefer to see her. She herself asserts the ideal which is to be different and proud of that difference.

Jason Flemyng done up as Azazel

 

The fight at the end is well stage-managed. I have a slight problem with the physics of Erik’s power. How can be overcome the inertia of mass unless he controls gravity? I can understand the general principles of being able to distort metal or manipulate it in various ways, but how does he levitate a submarine out of the sea when he is in the air? I might have had more sympathy if he had been on the ground. We might hypothesise he braces himself in some way. But reaching through seawater to lift such a deadweight creates an incongruous sequence when we see him standing on the undercarriage of the plane with the submarine looming overhead. I’m also faintly confused by the end of Shaw. According to the backstory, he absorbs kinetic energy. OK so we have to live with the notion that atomic particles have mass and motion so potentially he could absorb energy from an atomic reactor. But when Erik burst in on him inside the now grounded submarine, why has he not absorbed sufficient energy from the reactor to be able blast Erik into pieces? He would not lose stored power just because Erik withdraws the rods before entering? I suppose, like a cat, he wants to play with Erik before incinerating him and is overconfident. That said, I was hooked by that point and didn’t care while watching the fight.

Nicholas Hoult before he begins feeling blue

 

Michael Fassbender is impressive as the conflicted Erik whereas James McAvoy is cool and dispassionate throughout (although there’s the slightest sign of possible romance with Moira played by Rose Byrne at the end). As to the mutants, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique plays the part well and regrets Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) being too wrapped up in his own appearance problems to understand her. January Jones makes a good shot at Emma Frost, while Álex González is little more than a cypher as Riptide. The real standouts are Kevin Bacon who shows great presence as Sebastian Shaw and Jason Flemyng who is once again in a prosthetic suit, this time as Azazel — his use of the tail as a weapon is fascinating.

 

Overall, X-Men: First Class is a really enjoyable blockbuster with great work by director Matthew Vaughn shooting from a script by Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz. It’s worth spending the money to see!

 

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