Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers everywhere!
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the world of Panem, and land rife with civil unrest. 74 years ago Panem, which is split into twelve working-class districts and one wealthy capitalist Capitol, was host to an uprising, during which the unruly numbered districts were defeated by the Capitol’s military powers, and during which District 13 was destroyed. As penance for this act, every year the Capitol holds an annual Hunger Games, for which a boy and girl aged 12 to 18 from each district are randomly selected, trained, presented to the public and thrown into a specially made arena to fight it out to the death, until only one player survives. Katniss lives in District 12, and the when her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is picked in her first draw, Katniss volunteers in her stead. Her male counterpart is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker who only tangentially knows Katniss. Katniss asks her friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) to look after her sister and emotionally frail mother (Paula Malcomson).
Katniss and Peeta are prepared for the 74th Hunger Games with the help of a former winner from their district, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), their publicity representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). The games are presented by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Clausius Templesmith (Toby Jones), have been designed by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and are overseen by the Capitol’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss and Peeta compete and, through various amounts of bullshit and nonsense, are crowned joint winners, with Katniss emerging as some kind of icon to the public due to Cinna’s elaborate costumes and her compassion for a younger competitor who reminded her of Primrose, District 11’s Rue (Amandla Stenberg). Katniss’ status concerns Snow, so for the following year’s 75th Hunger Games he creates a twist wherein the only competitors will be previous winners. As luck would have it all twelve districts have at least one male and one female winner, despite most of them having been won by Districts One and Two, who train career tributes to volunteer and kill everyone for fun. Glossing over that gaping plot hole, Katniss and Peeta once again find themselves in the arena, now alongside far more seasoned competitors including Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright), Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), and with this game having been designed by Plutarch Heavensby (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Midway through this game Beetee and some of the others hatch a plan to destroy the games, which Katniss assists by shooting a lightning-bolt arrow into the arena dome. The arena explodes, and Katniss awakes on an aircraft being carried to safety alongside Finnick and Beetee, with Haymitch and Plutarch their saviours. Peeta and Johanna have been captured by the Capitol.
Katniss and the others are taken to the secretly not-destroyed District 13, led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who is planning another uprising. Katniss is used as a propaganda tool for Coin’s cause, appearing in marketing material used to rally the other districts. Gale successfully rescues Peeta, Johanna and Finnick’s fiancée Annie (Stef Dawson) from the Capitol, but it turns out Peeta has been brainwashed to kill Katniss, so he badly injures her when he tries to strangle her. Peeta is restrained and, once Katniss has recovered, the revolution begins, with all thirteen districts uniting against a booby-trapped Capitol. Katniss and her team – including Gale, Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and a film crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) – are not on the front line, instead they are still used to shoot propaganda in areas traversed by revolutionaries a day or two earlier. Katniss convinces the team to go on her special self-assigned mission to assassinate Snow, but along the way discovers Coin would be no better a leader. After the revolution is successful, Katniss manages to kill both presidents and settles down for a life with Peeta and their two children.
Why did I just run through the whole plot of the Hunger Games franchise? I’ve no idea. I kind of started out my initial plot set-up and just sort of forgot to stop, so it’s done now. Anyway, I don’t like these films. I’m the first to admit that they aren’t for me, and that they’re also a great deal better than any Divergent or Twilight nonsense that has come before, but I believe the whole Hunger Games thing to be just nonsense, and for reasons I’ve not seen discussed much anywhere else. I haven’t and will most likely never read the books, nor do I hope to ever watch any of the films again, though I find that unlikely as we own the first three on DVD and the fourth is bound to follow. I wasn’t even going to write this piece after seeing Mockingjay Part 2 recently, but the first two films – The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – both inexplicably appear on Empire’s Top 301 films of all time list, so I’d need to review them eventually, so now seemed a good time to vow to never see them again. Also I was sorting through some notebooks and found two sets of notes taken for both of the first two films which I’d never gotten around to writing up, and I want to throw them away.
I’m not a fan of love triangles, particularly ones as contrived and redundant as the one here between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. It’s fair to say that had Katniss never volunteered 74th for the Hunger Games then she and Gale would have eventually gotten together – presumably in the woods one day, during a less than successful hunting expedition – and Peeta would have gone on working in his parents’ bakery, his eyes becoming ever runnier and his demeanour continuing to resemble that of a damp sponge. Instead he and Katniss are thrown together into a cycle that will find themselves feeling the need to protect one another, pretend to be in love in order to survive, eventually somehow falling in love through the façade, being split up and used for propaganda on opposite sides of a war, one of them being brain-washed to kill the other, and finally putting all that behind them. If that was just a love story on its own then I’d be juuuuust about OK with it, barely, but when you throw in the third party second suitor of Gale – who let’s not forget is a Hemsworth, and looks it – then you’ve got me questioning things. Throughout the first three films Gale does absolutely everything right, short of volunteering as tribute in Peeta’s place. He cares for Katniss’ family whilst she is otherwise engaged trying not to be killed, he saves them and many others from an under-fire District 12, and he tries not to be jealous of how close Katniss must get to Peeta in the media circus following the 74th games, yet Katniss remains forever conflicted between the two, despite Peeta’s lack of any positive qualities. What really angers me, though, was how this triangle was set up over three and a half films, even going so far as to having a conversation in Mockingjay Part 2 between Peeta and Katniss about how the three of them would most likely not all survive the war but, if they did, Katniss would then have the difficulty of choosing between them. With this much set-up you must have some kind of pay-off. Some scene where Katniss must make the arduous decision which man to go for, probably with the other dying as a result, or maybe the one she picks dies and the other can never live with being second choice, whatever. What this saga does instead of making Katniss choose is it gives her one giant shining reason not to go with Gale when he is involved in killing Katniss’ sister Prim. Gale suggested a bomb, called a Hummingbird bomb, which lets off a small explosion, draws in the medical workers to aid the injured, then detonates a second, larger bomb to wipe all of them out too, which is used by Coin pretending it is being used by Snow, to kill a bunch of kids as well as Prim, who is working as a medic. Thus, Katniss cannot be with Gale, and her choice is now moot. Peeta may have tried to kill Katniss in the past, but he didn’t successfully kill Primrose, so is the better choice. Aggravating.
I’m also not a fan of the sporadic uses of magic throughout the franchise. This world has been set up to exist within the same limitations as our own, with a skewed perspective on politics but most certainly not on what is possible with science, and yet within the first game there are digitally-spawned rabid dog-creatures called mutts. There’s a scene where game designer Seneca Crane is shown a 3D holographic rendering of the mutts by one of his employees. He nods his approval, and suddenly these creatures are able to appear from the ether in the game and kill people. As far as I can tell these Hunger Games are actually taking place in real life within the film’s world, not via virtual reality goggles and rigs, so this is some bullshit right here. I can allow the genetically mutated poison wasp Tracker-Jackers, rains of blood, poison mist, rapid baboons, tidal waves and oil slicks in the rest of the arenas – the mimicking mockingjay birds are a stretch, but whatever – but those mutts have always annoyed me. The same would go for the mermen-like so-called mutts in the fourth film, but we don’t see them physically appear from nothing, so I can concoct some back story where they’ve been manufactured in a laboratory or mutated from who-knows-what. Those pod-detecting map sensors in film four are just plain magic though, no two ways about it, and the same goes for the mystical healing gel in film one. I have issues with Peeta’s brainwashing too, mainly because it comes from nowhere with no hint of this world even having the ability to do that kind of thing, let alone setting up its limitations.
My final problem comes from the characters, and how little I care about any of the focal points. Jennifer Lawrence is a fine actress who deserved her Oscar nomination in Winter’s Bone, and who knows maybe one day she’ll deserve a second nomination and might even deservedly win an award someday. How she was nominated for being the worst part of American Hustle I’ll never comprehend, and the same goes for why anyone even talks about Silver Linings Playbook (more on that next week, maybe). I’ve not jumped onto the J-Law bandwagon, presumably because I don’t think I’ve seen her do many interviews, and from what I’ve heard it’s very much her off-screen persona that people are drawn to, because it certainly can’t be what she does on screen. I get that Katniss is supposed to be a hard-nosed uncharismatic person who wants to shun this spotlight she has accidentally pointed at herself, but that makes for a lead character I never want to follow. There’s a scene in Mockingjay Part 1 in which Haymitch asks a group of people to think of something Katniss has done that genuinely made them feel something, and that blank look they all shared is the same one I have when thinking the same thing about most of Lawrence’s career. The same goes for her two male co-stars who, apart from some of Hutchinson’s work in Mockingjay Part 2, are both really bland. The films scrape through though by surrounding these leads with a frankly amazing cast all giving everything they’ve got, but I’m perpetually irked that we’re following the leads instead of literally anyone else.
In Catching Fire, when only former tributes can compete in the next games, part of me got excited at the prospect of seeing Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch getting shit done in the arena, but that carpet was ripped out by Peeta volunteering instead. Donald Sutherland is killing it and having a tremendous time as a pantomime villain in his high castle, but we’re only shown him for brief moments at a time. Philip Seymour Hoffman finished his career with an underplayed yet solid performance that just depresses me that not only is this his last role, but what could have been his most dramatic segment – a speech to Katniss right at the end which is replaced by a letter read by Harrelson – was missed due to his early demise. Jena Malone is terrific as an outgoing and antagonising yet entertaining presence, and Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair may be my favourite part of the whole thing. He’s clearly become a little addled from everything he’s seen, to the point that when a trap is encountered in the final film consisting of giant dual machine guns unleashing firey metal hell, everyone looks very concerned except for Finnick, who has a giant grin on his face. Love it. Oh and Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks. Both are wonderful, laying their characters with falsehoods, pomp and circumstance, knowing they thrive on the ridiculousness of their culture, but needing to do so or be banished into obscurity.
The world is also pretty well built, especially the juxtaposition between the hand-to-mouth living within the districts and the opulent, lavish lifestyle in the Capitol. A great deal of time has been spent on the hair, make-up and costuming for the Capitol citizens, and it’s all worthwhile for the overall effect, but not enough to make me like these films. There are some great scenes – Mockingjay Part 2 has a particularly brutal attack in the sewers which leads to another great scene from a character I’ve not mentioned yet, mute cameraman Pollux (Elden Henson), and the whole thing doesn’t feel as much like a Battle Royale rip-off as it could, but there’s just far too much here that annoys me.
The Hunger Games: Choose Life 5/10
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Choose Life 6/10
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1: Choose Life 5/10
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Paty 2: Choose Life 7/10