In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
While watching Sanctum, the James Cameron-produced, Alister Grierson-directed adventure-thriller about underwater cave exploration, last week, a lot of thoughts ran through my mind (several relating to the 3D), but only one stuck: Why do the pros always have to die? Don’t worry, me simply raising that question isn’t exactly a Sanctum spoiler. The movie is, after all, about a group of professional cave divers trapped in a life-or-death scenario. If someone dies, they’re simply bound to be the pro.
That said, I do have one very specific complaint about the film’s script and it is spoilertastic, so if you don’t want to have certain events in Sanctum spoiled for you, you may want to skip this portion of the post. Onto the spoilers!
If you’re still with me, I can only assume it’s because you’ve already seen Sanctum and know how it ends. If you haven’t and just don’t care, here’s a recap: Josh (Rhys Wakefield) the young, irresponsible son of the world’s greatest cave diver, Frank (Richard Roxburh), survives while everyone else on the expedition dies. On the surface, I don’t have a particular problem with this because his father the pro is only taken out of the equation when he has to fight a fellow diver suffering from a bout of cave madness and punctures his lung with a stalagmite in the process. Frank isn’t beaten by the cave, he’s beaten by a raving coward. That’s fine, I can live with that, but just think of the opportunity screenwriters John Garvin and Andrew Wight missed by killing him off.
The only major source of character conflict in the movie is the strained relationship between Frank and Josh. Frank wants his son to have the same passion for cave exploring that he’s had all his life; Josh wants to be his own man and instead be a rock climber. It’s classic “Daddy was a fireman, so I’ll be a cop” territory, but what elevates this scenario in Sanctum is the belabored fact that Frank isn’t just a normal cave explorer; he’s the most knowledgeable, experienced explorer in the world. His expeditions are the stuff of living legends and his life is the envy of billionaires.
So, naturally, he dies in the caves, though not before his son can have a change of heart and realize that his father wasn’t a bad guy. He may have been an emotionally unavailable, absentee father, but that was only because Frank had spent his entire life watching friends die from making mistakes that he never would. It all makes for a touching death, but does it pay off? Does it make Sanctum in any way unique? No.
What would have made Sanctum truly unique is if it had the balls to kill everyone else off and have Frank survive yet another harrowing adventure. Imagine how much more it would have paid off emotionally had the order of life been slapped in the face. Instead of having the vanilla, undeserving kid finally come of age, why not puncture his cocky lung with the stalagmite? Let the already hardened father give his son a watery burial before having to suck it up and spit in the face of fate once again.
Such a decision would be a bold move, but instead Sanctum joins a long list of movies that think it’s more dramatic to have the seasoned pro die on the job and let the rookie take up their mantle. But, honestly, who cares about that anymore? Not every movie out of Hollywood has to be capped off with a convenient, feel-good ending. It’s okay if the youngest person in a disaster movie - and that’s really all Sanctum is - doesn’t make it out alive. Old people surviving can be a happy event, too.
I can’t say I’m surprised by the ending. This is a James Cameron-produced movie, after all; a sappy ending is just part of the contract. But allowing unqualified Josh to live isn’t like, say, having Ripley outlast all of the marines in Aliens. Ripley earns her right to live. She doesn’t complain about having to be there. She doesn’t mess up on the job. She kicks ass and takes names and establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with. Josh, on the other hand, is the son of the force to be reckoned with. He does little aside from complain and mess up on the job (and his mess up even gets someone killed). But because he’s the youngest he gets to be the center of the Hollywood ending. Yay?