The new Hunger Games won me over immediately, with an opening that not only sets the scene but addresses a problem I had with the previous film. We begin with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), survivor of the kill-or-be-killed “games,” hunting in the woods. She kills an animal with her bow and, for a moment, hallucinates that she’s killed a person instead. It’s a shocking moment, one that quickly establishes the grim tone of the film, and directly suggests the psychological horror of a teen killing another teen for sport.
While it was a massively popular, hugely successful film, I really disliked the first installment. In addition to being flatly directed and dull, I found the premise distasteful. The concept of teens having to kill one another, in order to survive a futuristic sporting event, seemed tacky. Considering that the brilliant Japanese blockbuster Battle Royale had this same angle, but also applied biting satire, the adventures of Katniss came off as a rip-off.
Even worse, the PG-13 violence tried to soften the bloodshed by turning the camera away from it. In doing so, the movie was accessible, to the point where most teens were more taken by the love triangle and female empowerment than the half-hearted commentary on murdering your peers for sport. In the sequel, this mistake is corrected in the first scene, where Katniss is visibly haunted by her having to kill to survive. The story progresses so richly, I’ll avoid a tidy synopsis.
I mean no disrespect to Gary Ross, who made the first film and Pleasantville, but the former director of Seabiscuit was a poor choice. The follow-up is directed by Francis Lawrence, who made I Am Legend, and effectively draws emotionally charged performances, paces the film well and better combines live action with convincing CGI. It’s not merely a vast improvement on the original but a darker, bigger, better take on the concepts previously established.
This is a strange film for the holiday season, though its grim tale and exciting character dynamics should rivet those who liked the wobbly first installment. Less a watered down re-telling of Battle Royale and more a parable on how social/political uprisings occur, this is a dour but never less than compelling portrait of a bleak future and the need for activism in the age of indifference. It may play even better for adults who fondly remember Logan’s Run than the young adult audience it seeks.
It’s too long, won’t make sense to newcomers and, as it was the first time out, the characters and the world they inhabit are thinly drawn to all but readers of the books. Still, even though we sense there’s something missing, everything is presented with a clearer sense of purpose. Stanley Tucci’s Oompa-Loompa-meets-Richard-Simmons talk show host feels like a sharper spoof of TV personality insincerity than before. Effie is a still a Gaga-esque caricature played overboard by Elisabeth Banks but there’s now a sad desperation in view.
Returning stars Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are still excellent, as is Woody Harrelson and a touching Lenny Kravitz. Donald Sutherland’s first scene, a tense confrontation with Lawrence, is so good it gets his character and the movie off and running. Philip Seymour Hoffman, likewise, adds so much grit to his mysterious role. Only Liam Hemsworth is once again bland as the pretty boy suitor Katniss leaves in waiting.
Once the games of the title take place, there’s rich suspense and atmosphere (the film was shot in Georgia and Oahu). Instead of déjà vu, we’re seeing how good the first film should have been. This is edgy material with thoughtful subtext. Above all, it’s a great movie, worthy of the hype. A franchise that looked DOA leaving the starting gate has been modified and nearly perfected the second time out.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)