They say that dislike or like of a movie is a subjective concept. Who exactly “they” are, I have no clue. But how about if a film is “good” or “bad”?
This is a pretty long entry (you know, they say if you think about something long and hard enough, anything can become a sexual innuendo; but I digress). There are three parts. The first is a bit of semi-fictionalized prose; the second is a rant on Hollywood; the third is the review. Skip ahead if anything bores you.
On my undying hatred, and a bit of prosaic drama
The Hunger Games currently holds the prestigious title of “worst film I’ve seen in theaters this year”. Yes, I’ve learned to avoid a great majority of Hollywood’s weekly misgivings. I’d go as far as to say it’s the worst film I’ve seen in theaters in the last five years. If you find that notion hard to believe, then perhaps I might reword that last sentence, by instead saying that it’s the film I’ve hated most.
Popular opinion swings in favor of this movie and to any juvenile e-debater or keyboard-warrior, that makes me wrong. It reminds me of a great quote from Twelve Monkeys (1995; Terry Gilliam), in which Brad Pitt’s character, Jeffrey Goines, muses: “There’s no right. There’s no wrong. There’s only popular opinion.”
As one of the lonely voices of dissent, I’ll just say that I absolutely hated this film. I’d wager that there’s no other film that I’ve seen in my history or which remains etched in memory that I’ve hated as much as this one. Surely I could argue that many of those films were a whole lot worse, at least on a technical level. And surely I could be debating about other issues (which I have done, and continue to). I’ve held an intense dislike for many films, and a good deal of indifference for a great many more, but none have caused me to exhibit such a “militant” hatred.
If you’re wondering if I’m a contrarian of sorts, I would estimate that I am. But contrary to the belief you may have about contrarians, I do not adhere to a strict policy of always going against public opinion, which is why you’ll probably never see me exhibit any sign of support for crackpot conspiracy theorists.
I’m no more a contrarian than I am a man of my convictions. I can say with some hesitation that I have never faltered on any opinion I have held. I’m a contrarian insofar that I believe the public to be quite stupid on most issues. Movies are no different. And this is partly why it almost shames me to say that I actually saw this movie. There’s something inside me that dies out a little every time I breathe the words: “Yes, I saw The Hunger Games.” Those words are invariably followed with: “and it was shit”.
Why does it shame me so? Because I allowed myself to get suckered into seeing this film. I said that I can say with some hesitation that I have never faltered on any opinion because my decision to pay money and sit in theaters with the masses (from whom I’ve been away from far too long) was an act carried out in a slivery moment of hesitation. I had an inkling of doubt in my mind the second the ticket was in the palm of my hand. Fifteen minutes later there was no doubt at all.
There’s a bit of wisdom a finance professor expressed to me once: “Never buy (or sell) a stock because your friend told you so. Unless he’s the CEO of the company. And even then, you might be guilty of insider trading.” I believe this bit of wisdom is helpful (insofar that finance seeks to be helpful) in all areas of life. That area includes movies. Never watch a movie because your friend told you so. Even if his name happens to be Walt Disney, and he is clearly a zombified menace, do not purchase your ticket on a hunch. Such wisdom has helped me thus far in life, becoming useless only when I’ve failed to follow it.
To say this story has a beginning would be nothing but a blatant lie. Imagine if you will, the story of your feeble existence hurtling on a rock around and around, orbital through space. Now imagine a similar situation where a man is ambushed and thrust into a situation without even the barest hint of reconnaissance. The towel is over your head and you are forcibly hauled away by your captors. Except, in this instance, there were no AK47s, but the smiles of your friends.
Their first words and I paraphrase: “We’re going to go see the Hunger Games. Is that alright with you?” No, it’s not alright with me. Words you want to say. With the exception of, perhaps, describing the most personal and beautiful of life’s moments (which words likely could not describe), I was never at more of a loss for words. Even writing this and thinking back on the moment, it was truly scary to recall. I am nothing without my words. And right now I was a hostage in the back seat, and my captives had figuratively decapitated me.
The Hunger Games, what are you? Knowledge may yet be my greatest pursuit. Still, there I was, in a car full of strangely-eerie faces, riding a dungeon to film death with no clues. I had no idea who the director of the film was, who was in it, what it was about, whether or not it was based on a book. In short, I knew nothing except what they told me. A great sci-fi film, they said, it got good reviews. So like a child lured into a van by a strange man, there I was, except they lured me not with candy, but with words “great sci-fi film that got good reviews”.
A search for knowledge about this film only caused my mind to further cement the convictions I had about this film. For the more I read about it, and the more I search for it, the more I realize it is all a great, terrible product of man, which does nothing more than turn even the most sensible of the masses into servile, empty-headed puppets. And to say so in public, especially on the internet, is downright blasphemous to some.
I later discovered doing post-film research (possibly the worst kind of research for first-timers), that the movie had been based on a series of teen books, written by a middle-aged woman. Teen books written by a middle-aged woman. Had I known this, I would have avoided the film with absolution. I also later discovered that people actually had the fortitude to compare this boring and, quite honestly, terrible movie to Battle Royale. There is no comparison; Battle Royale may have its flaws, but it is head and shoulders above this film. It is better crafted, better acted, tenser, more dramatic, beautifully-flawed and substantive.
At this point in our story, indifference was my state of mind. And like so many of the indifferent, by not speaking out, in a way, I did nothing. Indifference is less than hatred, say some. It’s better to err on the side of a passion, be it however misguided, than to remain apathetic. Whether or not that is true is still for the jury to decide. All I know is that I wish I had spoken at that moment. In a way, individualism swept itself aside and the masses won out, as they always do. Was I wrong in failing to fight the delusions and stupidity of popular opinion? It is something that my mind harbors to this day.
Now, some of the uninitiated will undoubtedly pose the obvious question: why didn’t you choose not to? Such a question is almost always met with the words: “I do not know”, especially by those who have never thoughtfully explored the options in their own lives. The answer, and I will give it to you free of charge, is that I had no choice. And I do not. Just as I cannot control myself as I write this, or my endless thoughts, our actions, by our very thoughts, are literally out of control. If I ask you think of a lion, you will think of a lion. If I tell you not to think of a lion, you still will. You did not choose so, at least not purposely. Of course, if you have no notion of what a lion is, you may be in a predicament; but you may wonder: “What is a lion?” Just as I should have further asked the question: “What is The Hunger Games?”
Life is a puzzlement of curiosity. Our so-called “choices” are really a complexity of causality and determinism and timing and the little wants that our brains need. And by determinism I do not mean that which amateur astrologers engage in, whether or not the moon is aligned with a certain star. I do not mean the interference of a higher power. Those who utter those vile words: “I do not know”, are really just the ignorant who have not come to terms with the reality that we have but an illusion of choice and the barest hint of control. But I apologize for the digression; such a digression also serves to prove lack of choice. You can merely sum it all up by saying that you hated The Hunger Games because you saw it and because you hated it. Yet, you did not choose to hate it.
The multiplex is often a strange, depressing sight to behold. It seems that on any given day, the idiots outnumber the sensible, and child, teenager, and adult alike will flock to their weekly gathering place of worship. Nobody bothers to question anything. Nobody protests in doling out offerings, be it for a ticket to sit down in Hollywood’s house of worship (for another sermon befit for the masses), or for the exorbitant rates they charge to get you to fatten up.
And there I was, that day, in line like everybody else to pay money for a film that I did not care to see or not see, though that inkling of doubt continued to creep ever further. I apathetically handed over my money to grab my coveted place in line. While it was later that I truly regretted this decision, knowing that I wholeheartedly had thrown in my support of an evermore faltering system, at the time I felt comfortable with it. After all, what self-proclaimed film lover does not call the theater their second home? Only now do I get a fuller picture of its decadence.
An inaccurate perception of my tale would lead you to believe that I despise movies and the theater. On the contrary (there it is, again), I love these things. But there is a great deal of things I find beauty in that I would not mind if a sudden storm came and blew them all away. The things you love will kill you, some say. Or was it you kill the thing you love? In either scenario I can already envision a modicum of empathy.
At the end of it all, I walked out of the theater a seething pit of rage. I was angry at Hollywood for releasing such garbage. I was angry at my so-called friends, who had deceived me into seeing it. I was angry at the critics who positively reviewed it and I was angry at all of the sniveling teenagers who claimed the film was “edgy” and “visionary”. I was angry at whoever had written it. But I was most of all angry at myself, for having gone along with all of it, never having had a choice to begin with.
On good and bad, like and dislike, and every bit pretentious
I suppose the question on most people’s minds is the inevitable: Why did you hate this film so much? I read a blog post the other
day (make that month), wherein a fellow reviewer discussed why he watches bad movies, with reasons that included masochism and camaraderie. Indeed, those are some reasons. Some of my earliest blogging correspondents in the wide world of the internet (including Misty at Cinema Schminema and Isaac at IPC) seem to want to make a career out of watching them; for others (like the awesomely-named John Mountain at Written in Blood) it seems to come with the territory (horror films have a statistically higher chance of being terrible, and Hollywood has no qualms about releasing terrible horror films).
I would wager that for most people, however, it is purely chance. Or, if I were to be cruder, it is because Hollywood releases mostly crappy movies, and thereby the chances of watching one of these terrible movies become statistically greater. Therein lies the problem. To many, the fact that these films are given theatrical releases already carries an incorrect assumption: the film must be good enough to warrant it. Thus, the average moviegoer is likely to be consumed with an idea that even the most average movies are “good” (look at The Avengers phenomenon). It leads to a further, perhaps more important, reason to watch bad movies: they allow you to become more critical. Just as debate becomes more rigorous if you learn not to argue from ignorance and bother to research material does watching terrible films allow you to become the better critic.
I have perused the film libraries of Roger Corman. I have watched with eyes unclouded the films of Troma, Full Moon, and even Uwe Boll. It has become so simple for me to watch a film now and detect its flaws and shortcomings, whether the script needs work, or the camerawork can be improved, etc. Now I am aware you do not need to watch bad movies to allow yourself to detect such flaws, but it does not hurt. Hollywood releases bad films every week, but thanks to the guise of big budgets, “A-list” “actors”, special effects (read: CGI), and that bright studio sheen trademarked all over them, it’s easy to hide such flaws from many unsuspecting moviegoers. This is not some sort sixth sense, clairvoyance or even an intuition. It is years of watching movies, both good and bad. No other bad filmmaking collective on earth has as many pretentions as does the Hollywood system.
If I sound pretentious, myself, it is likely that I am. I dislike the use of generalized and sweeping statements, but it is the best impression that the masses seem to have made on me so far. I make no qualms about telling people how much I hate Hollywood. The very few decent movies that I thought were “good” are nowhere near enough to circumvent the “bad”. On the other hand, there are a good number (not many, but a scattered few) of films that I thought were “bad” that I liked. Likewise, there are a lot of films that I thought were “good” that I did not feel any sort of appreciation for; an example might be WALL-E (2008), a Pixar film that I thought fared well technically and was well-made, but couldn’t change my mind of dislike toward it. “Good” and “bad” seem to have become mixed up with “like” and “dislike”, respectively. So much so that to tell someone you liked a film means you literally thought it was good. I loved Jingle All the Way, but I think I have reconciled with the fact that it really sucks.
So where does The Hunger Games fit into this? It’s a film that exists on the extreme ends of both spectra. I absolutely hated it and I know in my mind that it was a terribly-made film.
On suicide, and spoilers
If you have ever pondered, whether to yourself or aloud (presumably to someone present, lest you come across as a loon), ever had even the smallest idea to watch this film, consider something else instead, like suicide. I guarantee that is what you’ll be thinking about fifteen minutes into this movie. I also realize that by telling people not to think about watching a film, they inevitably will, and some will even carry that thought out through action. So in some ways, I am the spreader of malicious thought. Like viruses, thoughts and words alike spread throughout this system we call society.
Now that I have finished rambling sufficiently, I will try to keep the review portion as succinct as possible. I say “try” because there is just so much one can say about this movie, enough to fill the pages of a book. I say this with a heavy heart, as sometimes it’s difficult to articulate why you feel the way you feel about something. Just as your love of things (and I specifically use an impersonal pronoun because I’ve yet to find these things) is difficult to describe, often, so is hatred.
To use the word “shocked” to describe how I felt after I learned that people thought this was actually really good would be an understatement. I think I should immediately point out its biggest flaw: it is boring. So much that even at its already long running time of over two hours, you’ll feel the world slowing down around you. It was a numbing effect getting up to go to the washroom; as soon as you leave the theater hall, it seems like time immediately begins to move normally again. In fact, I would argue that a film being boring is its biggest sin. Even the most terrible films can be watchable if they are entertaining.
As a consequence, much of the filming techniques and filmmaking flaws revolve around this perpetual state of boredom. For instance, this film has shaky-cam, which should really be a registered trademark, though which studio would be the holders, I have no idea. Rarely have I seen shaky-cam used to good, let alone great, effect. About 99% of the time, they actually detract from a viewing experience. Filmmaking is commercialized art, but it is still art. Put some effort into it. The worst thing about this is that the camera shakes in the situations that are supposed to be tense, thereby causing an opposite reaction of one not giving a damn about what’s going on.
This film is also not very subtle. Science fiction films tend not to be, depending on the scenario, but this is really pushing it. It’s not enough that the writer has to allude to Rome; she literally has to name her characters with Roman names: Peeta, Coriolanus, etc. Fascinating. Now you’re inadvertently reminding me of Shakespeare, too, which I would actually rather be reading, than watching this. I think writers ought to learn that your work can hearken back to these past times without hitting your audience over the head with it. It also makes me wonder how the writer felt about her audience. Of course, they’re teenagers. Like I said, sci-fi tends to be pretty heavy-handed sometimes, usually because their characters or situations are supposed to be symbolic or allegorical. This, however, is even less subtle than Avatar, which says a damn lot. Not to mention, none of them are symbolic or allegorical in the least.
A major flaw, but not the biggest, is its subpar acting. I admit that I expected more from Jennifer Lawrence, who was extremely disappointing here. Her idea of emoting is to spend the entire movie with the exact same look plastered on her face, with her mouth open only when an action scene calls for it. Most of the established actors – such as Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson – are grossly underused. Sutherland is in it for about thirty seconds, and Harrelson spends most of it drunk, which I can only surmise was not an act. Aside from a few others (such as Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci), the rest of the cast consisted mostly of younger actors, none of whom I gave any damn about.
In addition to its lack of subtlety and acting are its gross simplifications. This film has a pretention about it, like it wants to exude some substance. But everywhere you look, from the setting, to the characters, to the story, it is all stripped to its lowest common denominators, killing any ostensive substance. Like I said before, many sci-fi films lack subtlety. Furthermore, simple can be great. The best films, sci-fi or otherwise, have taken simple premises and added layers of complexities to them. The Hunger Games, however, is something of an oversimplified simplicity, for there is nothing substantive at all, only the pretense of it. The lack of subtlety is so thick you could build a crude dwelling out of it.
The world depicted in this film isn’t so much flawed as it is obvious. Its dystopian setting is a terribly simplified world of haves and have-nots. The storytellers make absolutely no attempt at giving this setting any substance by basically shoehorning poor people into ‘districts’ and the rich, with their outrageous external appearances, into a superficial city. Just so plain and boring. There aren’t even any real moments where this highly-linear class structure is even explored. Poor people are put into a death match for the amusement of the rich. So what?
This movie cannot decide what it wants to be; hence even a simple idea of “good” versus “evil” is thrown out of the window. Allow me to explain. When you hear of a story where the focus is young kids and/or teenagers being forced to kill each other, certain images are bound to come to mind. The biggest: the controversial. That’s what had so many people excited about this film, and why so many people were comparing it to Battle Royale. The problem lies with the characterizations.
Jennifer Lawrence’s character is immediately depicted as some sort of saint. We see she’s good with a bow, but that she’s also this very caring person. So much so that when her sister is chosen, she nobly sacrifices her own flesh to participate in the games. Yeah? Well, fuck that. This sort of characterization is obviously meant for us to identify with her. Unfortunately, many of the other teen participants, the ones we become familiar with, are just plain assholes. They’re bullies. They like to gang up and pick on others. Simply put, I did not care if they died. They were not even well-written villainous characters, and more like caricatures. What could have been a great setup for a lot of meaningful drama was excised in favor of a fatally simplified story of “good girl” versus “assholes”. There is absolutely no reason for me to care at all what happens.
I do not even care about Lawrence’s character because she is so poorly written. They even whack this idea of “saint” versus “assholes” into the viewers’ heads in a scene where a little black girl dies and it’s supposed to be all dramatic, except I found it so corny that my laughter almost got me ejected from the theater. There is nothing that’s supposed to inspire more sympathy from its audience than a little girl dying, and there I was, not giving a shit.
And that, readers, is the segue into this film’s penultimate flaw. This is one of the most bipolar films I have ever seen. Aside from its ultimate flaw (its boredom-inducing nature), the others could arguably be forgiven. However, the film’s narrative structure and all of its components (from characters to individual scenes) are compromised by its inability to pick a single underlying mood. This is why a scene like the little girl’s death was unintentionally funny, because the filmmakers forgot how to pick a mood and go with it.
The tonal shifts from scene-to-scene are so jarring it is enough to take you out of the movie, as if the film is experiencing strange and constant mood swings. This, coupled with its all-too-serious nature, makes the film either unnecessarily corny or unintentionally funny. There isn’t an underlying tone or mood that glues the scenes together. Even the most mediocre directors can splice scenes together to make a proper narrative that holds a consistent tone. They just didn’t do that here.
Most of the film’s problems can actually be linked to this penultimate flaw. It is so much so that at the end, when you think that the two survivors have changed the nature of the game or something, and you get the feeling it is supposed to be important, it doesn’t feel that way. The film just rambles on and on and on again and then ambles to a complete dead stop.
There are other problems, of course, and I could nitpick all day. For instance, the game controllers can actually rig the arena, and set up things like fires and explosions to try to alter or control the direction of the game’s events. By the film’s end, they’re somehow causing genetically-mutated dogs to spring out of the ground, and then causing them to inexplicably disappear. If you aren’t paying attention, or if you haven’t read the book, some of these minor details will be so offsetting that you’ll think one of the theater employees spiked your drink with acid. There’s also a part after the little black girl’s death where the people of her district start rioting, and you think something big is about to happen, but then it’s just forgotten. Like the rest of the movie, that scene was pointless and meaningless.
Oh, right, and there’s the ‘romance’, which I’ll just shoehorn in here, since that’s pretty much what the film did. To put it crudely: among the worst film romances ever. I know, I know, Hollywood likes to put romance in everything. This, however, was the epitome of frivolous. I gather it was meant to be an important focus of the film, and yet, it just seemed added on at the last minute like a forgotten footnote. It was poorly-conceived, poorly-executed, unbelievable and unbelievably cheesy.
The Hunger Games feels like it was directed by Godfrey Ho, who took a bunch of different sources and tried to stitch them together. It is boring, unsubtle, oversimplified, and poorly-executed from just about every conceivable angle. It has an air of pretentiousness around it, and its ‘serious’ nature attempts to disguise its superficiality. There is little substance to this film, and even its simplicity seems offensive. Avoid this one at all costs.