Hunger Games is one of those works that repulse but are gripping and leave you thinking in the end. But this one is more repulsive than gripping. This grizzled viewer of movies can only decry the spectacle. To use a possible misappropriation of a literary line I have never read in its entirety, “Death, death everywhere, and in the prime of youth too.”
If there are two things we don’t naturally associate with each other, these are death and youth. We always expect the young, like natural logic, to always be alive and to live on to a ripe age. Hunger Games is a movie that subjects the more sensitive viewers to a lot of trauma, with such a spate of death of beautiful youth. The death of young people happens everyday, to be certain, but in silent, hidden ways that always deliver a shock, not in a scale as maniacal and massive as in this movie, within a span of two hours too.
I am old enough for gimmicks like this, but nothing prepared me for the ugly violence, not even the likes of Spartacus. (I guess one never gets used to it.) I have read that classic American short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson in The New Yorker magazine, perused the George Orwell novel 1984 with considerable enjoyment, and watched many a film with similar settings (futuristic) and feel (dystopic): The Truman Show, Gattaca, Fahrenheit 451, and so on. I even sense some Metropolis in it, in the added-on social conflict along the otherwise tired but still very-much-alive rich-poor divide. Out of curiosity, I have endured TV reality shows like Survivor and Big Brother. I’m a veteran of the other influences of the film: the Oscars, Miss Universe, and who knows what else. Lastly, by the accident of non-employment boredom, I have also watched the Japanese monstrosity called Battle Royale, which struck me as downright sick though it is admittedly thought-provoking. I can't pronounce Hunger Games to be on the same level as the aforementioned titles (except Battle Royale). Instead, all it has is a pressing train-wreck quality: I had to see it out of curiosity, but I know I will feel sorry I did.
The biggest problem, as I have already mentioned, is the sickness that I sensed at the outset in the mere enjoyment of this kind of movie. It is easy to understand the beauty of martial arts (we’re a childhood fan of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and the rest) and the thrill of the action in Hollywood’s big-ticket pictures, even though as I got older, I’ve grown more and more offended by all that violence, especially since it happens in real life and we all know it to be ugly; instead these movies are rendered as entertaining and made harmless to the point of applying a glossy finish. Nevertheless, it is easy to admit finding such common fare as Transformers enjoyable. There is never been shame there, nor even a crime. Thanks also to such movies as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the depiction of violence, especially of war, in its utter ugliness is now acceptable too, as violence is used to drive home a good point: to make something objectionable truly come off objectionable. (Notice too the born-again reversal, or change of heart, if you will, of Clint Eastwood, in Unforgiven, from such admittedly enjoyable western spaghetti-capers as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.)
But to depict ugliness, especially the ugliness of death in the face of youth, in quite in-your-face a manner (though I acknowledge the blunting effect of the dizzying camera work) and in two unrelenting hours is too much. While Hunger Games does not lack for merit (it is amazing how an author can combine all the abovementioned influences together in a more or less cohesive and engaging manner), nothing seems able to save it from its offensiveness. To put it bluntly, this film is just too sadist and anti-youth for my taste. No one in his right mind will find enjoyment in seeing a parade of young people being hurt that way – even if it is the whole point.
We get that part too, after all, after a minimum effort of exercising our brain: from the perspective of art reflecting social realities and extrapolating from there, Hunger Games is all about a future dystopic society in which children are routinely sacrificed at the altar of fabulously shallow entertainment. The truth is, we are staring at it right now, staring at our very own selves, thanks to our enjoyment of voyeurism involving beautiful, willing, and ambitious youth, and in the extreme direction, the way our society now sees children as burdens, expendables, worthless enough for after-birth abortions, and whose innocence may be compromised with too-early sex education and constant bombardment of banal sex. One of the movie’s brightest moments is when it manages to make you shed a stupid tear in that familiar scene borrowed from Survivor and Big Brother: the powers-that-be mustering enough gumption to reward virtue despite their own criminality. It strikes the viewer, however, as a big false note. It's like Satan rising from hell to give you a pat on the back for being a noble human being.
Therein lies the movie’s major fault: its moral confusion, including the unintended direction of its ironic vision. First, the ironic vision of death-in-the-prime-of-youth, instead of developing into something artfully insightful, turns into a major illogic. It fails to work on the level of a satire of a violent, oppressive police state of the future because it capitalizes on the very violence by making it entertaining. The movie condemns violence yet revels in it, like explicit-sex films that decry sexploitation. For what are those violent games for, which dominate the story, but to give the audience what they want: the thrill of the kill? The two leads are clearly placed to be the noble-hearted rebels of a future uprising, this franchise being a trilogy, but Hunger Games also solicits mass applause for the entertainment value in the way the violence is depicted, instead of the mass revulsion for failed utopias which 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and the like successfully elicit.
I can’t help but end up with a lingering suspicion, in conclusion: Could the creators of this movie and their fans have sadism issues, i.e., long-forgotten traumas in life involving deep shaming that has now evolved into deep hatred for the loss of youth? Why the fascination for young people in revolting moments of physical torment? That a lot of us, especially young people, find all that non-sickening is a disturbing sign of the times.
Seen as the new version of Metropolis, however, on top of the already-engrossing human sacrifice (scapegoating) theme, Hunger Games may yet find an enduring quality in its being an unintended but accurate depiction of the evils of today's society, but it is still too early and I am still too shocked (and I guess will always be shocked) to consider the crystal ball.
P.S.: Among the several reviews I've read so far, after making mine, this impressed me the most, not the least because it is contrarian (relative to my view):
Secular Scapegoats and 'The Hunger Games'
I also like this review for its fifth point resembles my own thought, and is extremist compared with the above:
I've Lost My Appetite for Hunger Games