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Top Science Fiction Sports movies, no. 29: The Hunger Games

BuckBokai’s rundown of the top 30 science-fiction sports movies continues today with a look at that literary/cinematic phenomenon, The Hunger Games. Warning: Spoilers may appear below.

“The book was better than the movie”: How many times have you heard the line after watching yet another in an endless line of unoriginal work (particularly in the science-fiction/fantasy genres) from Hollywood?

BuckBokai has for years, through previous incarnations as film critic and art lecturer, attempted to eschew this philosophy. In the increasingly less humble opinion of this writer, any movie should be judged on its own merits; surely no one 400 years has left a production of “Othello” muttering unflattering comparison to Cinthio’s short story. No reader ever closed the cover on a biography with a critique of “That was good, but his actual life was better.”

By the same token, any assertion of positivity toward a given film which involves enhancing (i.e. helping one to better understand a half-baked plotline) the viewer’s experience through internet research (e.g. Donnie Darko) or one to several other works (e.g. The Avengers) is bunk. Just imagine audiences of 1942 endorsing the looking-up of Victor Laszlo and Rick Blaine’s backstories (complete with animated shorts and timeline!) so as to increase interest in Casablanca.

The truth is that just one simple question need be answered to determine the quality of any film in any genre:

Is it a good movie?

The Hunger Games is not.

For those not in the know, The Hunger Games tells the story of one Katniss Everdeen, a 14-year-old (played by 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence) citizen living in a poverty-stricken district of Panem, a totalitarian state founded in the former USA. She is chosen as one of a couple dozen youth to participate in the titular competition, a reality TV/bloodsport hybrid that is equal parts social ritual and entertainment – kinda like Survivor mixed with Super Bowl and a dash of Rollerball.

Oops … a bit of unintentional cheating there; see, the last bit on the Hunger Games’ importance to Panem is straight from Suzanne Collins’ novels. In fact, any sort of exploration of the world outside the post-apocalyptic, Smallville-like teen romance nonsense is utterly non-existent and without any foreknowledge of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, the massive dumbing down at the expense of plot is in full evidence from the start.

Rather than more firmly grounding both the bigger picture and the individual characters’ stories, so many underdeveloped scenes instead create an effect of surreal messiness. What was that stuff about the rioting? What was the significance of the loaf of bread? What does any conversation between Katniss and EEEEevil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) mean? Why is Katniss’ relationship with Cinna so important? Or is it? With too much to tell, The Hunger Games bogs down early and often in its own shortcuts.

Certain, let’s say, odd directorial choices by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) help matters not at all. We all know Gary’s into depression and desensitization already – is this his excuse for not demanding actual emotional range from the Hunger Games cast?

Donald Sutherland is as nicely competent as he’s even been through decades of playing heavies and BuckBokai would never say an unkind word about Jennifer Lawrence – anyone who’s seen Winter’s Bone knows the feeling – but even her thoughtful performance as Katniss can’t drag up the dead weight of her fellow players. While some bit players are passable in their DeMillean closeups, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta rarely conveys, well, anything while Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne never does. And Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman comes off as the least relevant sports commentator since the Paul Heyman’s bizarrely bombastic turn in the Rollerball remake – desensitization, nothing: Wouldn’t this guy be infusing a little life into the Panem Bowl broadcast?

And let’s not even started on the costumes. The garish garb of the Panem privileged looks brutally bad against the washed-out look of everything else – it’s as though Ross is seeking to recreate the sole positive of his criminally overrated Pleasantville, namely the juxtaposition of color against black and white. It’s also as though Ross has never seen Heaven’s Gate, one ugly-ass film that proves a muddy pastiche never works.

But it’s the meta aspects that truly drive this viewer crazy. Now that “it wasn’t as good as the book” has been rendered harmless in everyday discourse (Chasing up the dread expression with “but it was still a good movie” is perfectly possible and is just about as commonly heard), we’ll certainly be getting Hunger Games 2 and 3. Amidst the present-day squall of reboots, remakes and franchise adaptations, questions of quality no longer matter as fans line up to see how – rather than how *well* – the book/comic/television program was done.

Because of this immediate rush to the box office, the sequels come despite the bafflement of the uninitiated. Not to mention those interesting in seeing a good film.

This is the depressing future.

And for the record, the book is better than the movie.

Next: Top science-fiction sports movies nos. 26 through 28: Disney tries the subgenre again and again … and again.

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