Set in a dystopian future, “Panem” (“Bread” as in the Roman “Bread and Circuses”) is run by an effete oligarchy who run a ruthless tribute state. They rule over 12 districts kept in a state of 19th century industrialism. Each district must provide two people in a “reaping” to appease Panem’s rulers. Once selected the two will be submitted for a televised gladiatorial contest, twentyfour of them will fight it out to the death and there can only be one winner. The contestants will be monitored by surrounding hi-tech. Before being sent to the killing ground, the two district 12 contestants (starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson as Peta Mellark) are feasted and given celebrity treatment by Stanley Tucci as the TV prima donna. Katniss Everdeen gets into the arena and there is a twist at the end.
This is very entertaining but also highly derivative. The sci-fi influences are many: 1984, Logan’s Run, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Handmaid’s Tale, Rollerball, West World, Lost, Lord of the Flies, Steven King’s Running Man, reality TV The X Factor and I’m a Celebrity Get me out of here. Critics have talked about this being a satire on reality TV, but one should remember that some sixty or seventy years ago sci-fi predicted the gladitorialization and ritual humiliation contestants on celebrity wannnabee TV, so this film has come full circle on that prediction by giving it an opportunistic relevance for teen audiences inured to the humiliating idiocies of Britain’s Got Talent. The stylized broadcast hunt is then an old story in sci-fi, this film adds 21st century hi-tech to it. The authoritarian control of resources with the consequent impoverishment of subject peoples living in industrial and craft serfdom is familiar from such as 1984, The Handmaids Tale, and Zardoz. The juxtaposition of decadent, jaded, ruling classes surrounded by primitivized resentments is pretty well worn, but it works to a degree in this film. The ruling classes are dressed like 1980s New Romantics in a mixture of Blade Runner post modernist stylistic absurdities parading in some Roman court presided over by Nero or Elagabalus. This closely replicates Zardoz and reminds me of that Joni Mitchall song from 1985 about the parasitism of the privileged on poorer people, they will resort to artifice (hi-tech games), brutality (killing), and innocence (the exploitability of vitality all for vicarious gratification). Woody Harrelson is amusingly cynical as their contestants’ mentor and is an ex-winner. Jennifer Lawrence hones her hunting skills as she did in Winters Bone. Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones send up the likes of Simon Cowell smarmily ready to set up victims for the mob’s amusement. Donald Sutherland is the big boss reminding the games organizer that sentiment towards subject people is unmerited, their exploitation must continue.
The Hunger Games is from a teen book, so might we get another teen franchise? I hope not. Some of the contestants are a-moral, and all are competents. Their self conscious petulance betray an ambivalence that militates against the genuine cruelty in Lord of the Flies. They are too readily the puppets of Panem, and plot wise this doesn’t convince. Why don’t they turn on their masters if they have nothing to lose? The story itself seems more overly contrived set pieces than a convincing tale about what would happen in this dystopia. Anyway, it’s all good fun.