Writing on a film that makes more money in its opening weekend than the combined domestic box office of all the films I have reviewed for The Student in over a year is quite a departure for me in many ways. For one, instead of having an entire theater to myself (or so I used to pretend), I had to swim in a sea of fresh, glowing teenagers whose popcorn crunching rivaled their pre-show chatter. For another, the hype and scrutiny of the film infiltrate our daily lives to an extent where the story becomes too blasé to reiterate: in the post-apocalyptic nation Panem, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her sister to compete in an annual televised eponymous battle where 24 selected teenagers kill each other off, a cruel tactic of the totalitarian government to assert its authority.
The tale itself is barely anything new even if we ignore the hackneyed comparison to “Battle Royale,” a 2000 Japanese film with similar premise in which politics and blood splatter far more explicitly. Moral conundrum, teenage love and trust, socioeconomic hierarchy, dystopian world, political conspiracy and their combinations have all been repeatedly explored in literature and films. Rarely has Hollywood cared less about content innovation, marketing is now the main factor that lends verdict to a film’s commercial success. Identifying a target demographic group is only the first step: mobilizing existing fans and convincing them to sell the film to their friends is the real deal. The key? Intimately engaging the fans with rewards such as visiting the film set, unlocking new materials and scavenger hunting for the latest footages grant them a sense of ownership. A simple application of adolescent psychology, this marketing strategy has succeeded gloriously for “The Hunger Games” at the box office and beyond. It is hard not to view the film as a litmus test of our attitudes toward pop culture. Some resist watching it because of its ubiquity, while others buy tickets for that precise reason; some rage over the portrayal of dark-skinned characters as black, while others embrace the representation; some compliment on the strong female lead, while others lament the failure of mainstream films on the Bechdel test (a popularized gender-bias criteria where there must be at least two women in the film who talk to each other about something other than a man) or make memes about the fact. In this immediacy-ruled share-all world where personalization and microtrends claim our attention from one minute to the next, “The Hunger Games” reflects our social opinions with its glossy veneer.
And glossy veneer it has — meticulously directed and edited, the 142-minute feature faithfully revisits most of the adrenaline rush that the book delivers. Cleverly patient with the events before the actual Games, the film soaks up as much of the ambience and tension as possible along the text and its PG-13 lifetime. Yet such calculation does not translate to a smooth narrative, which starts off strong and energetic (if not too eager to include every significant detail) and then slacks up in the final hour, the polish wearing off similarly as the characters in the Games. Regardless of its unevenness, the film grips the audience from the get-go and manages to keep them on their seat from start to finish. Having had to sit in a raucous crowd that laughed at everything in “Twilight: New Moon” (take-home message: never watch a film you don’t care about just because it was on a bundle ticket sale with one you anticipated. Damn you, “Avatar!”), I found it remarkable that the theater remained respectfully silent throughout the screening.
I could not speak for the star-studded soundtrack, but eight-time Academy Award nominee James Newton Howard composed a clean score that is modestly tucked in the plot. On the visual front, occasional hand-held, choppy camera movements decently capture the actions and danger without offending the audience and leave space for moderate set decors (the CGI of Panem disappoints) and more impressive costume designs (sleek, earthy or garish according to distinct personalities). Of course, in an effort to promote the next holy trinity after Radcliffe-Watson-Grint and Pattinson-Stewart-Lautner, a plethora of close-ups highlight the new stars. Lawrence as Katniss suffices our imagination and adequately embodies her strength and vulnerability within the confines she was given — after all, the film centers on her but is essentially not about her. Less thrilling were the performances of the heartthrobs Josh Hutcherson as Katniss’ fellow representative and admirer, Peeta Mellark, and Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ best friend, Gale Hawthorne, in District 12, the grim, wretched home region. District 12 starkly contrasts with the futuristic and luxurious Panem, where the “gamemakers” work as pawns of the regime to design the deadly Games into a sensationalist reality show.
The “gamemakers” have to recognize the protagonist’s triumph at the ending, which though timid offers both satisfaction and enough cliffhangers to lure the audience back for another round of media frenzy (the second installment of the trilogy is scheduled to be released on Nov. 22, 2013). Unsurprisingly, the production of “The Hunger Games” has far smarter strategies than that of the fictional killing fest, securing the franchise as the latest white-hot phenomenon.