Well here’s something we don’t get everyday, a big budget adaption of a wildly popular book that is not only intelligent but also realises that it’s working in a different media and adapts accordingly. The result is a film that cannot really be called entertaining (it raises some fairly uncomfortable issues along the way) but certainly is thought provoking and treats its audience with the understanding that occasionally we like to think.
The premise is well known by now, but what is surprising is the method of execution. The director goes for the simple (but often overlooked) rule of film, “Show, don’t tell” in establishing the setting and the characters, the result of which is that it feels more cinematic than recent large budget adaptations (Harry Potter I’m looking at you) despite the lack of large scale spectacle. Indeed, effects are kept to a minimum as they’d only get in the way and there’s the sense that the central element of the film was largely captured in camera giving the whole affair a physicality and thus heightening the tension when the games begin. Before that we have a lengthy period in which the political and social situation is expounded upon, and its here that the film is at its most acerbic, prodding at the continuing fascination with reality television just enough the raise questions amongst the audience. It’s not quite Black Mirror levels of satire, but it is more effective than the similar theme in The Cabin in the Woods, possibly due to the lack of sledgehammer approach that film took. It’s a perfect case of the director knowing how to pitch the film at the target audience without treating them as idiots, something that may account for the success of the film across the demographics.
It’s also more than aware of its cinematic sources, drawing on The Running Man (the ludicrous costumes of the shows presenters) and Battle Royale (the no nonsense approach to the fact that it is kids that are being killed) along the way. However it’s never less than its own film, establishing its own dynamic along the way. Interestingly for once the bane of modern action film, the shaky camera / flash cut is here used to superb effect, hinting at far greater violence than we actually see (augmented by the excellent sound design). It’s still straining at the limits of its certificate, but for once the demands of a certificate from the studio may have resulted in a stronger film than a focus on the brutality would have produced. Again all praise to the director for realising this and using it to is advantage to ramp up the tension in other ways beyond keeping score of the next atrocity.
As commented the sound design is also excellent, and unusually for a large scale Hollywood film, quiet. The music is un-intrusive and rarely used; instead the noises of the forest dominate the second half of the film, drawing you further into the action. It’s a rare occurrence these days, but the result was that you didn’t leave the cinema feeling as if you’re ears had been bashed for the preceding two hours. The use of colour is interesting as well, green dominates the latter half of the film, but before then the majority of the film is set in a lurid, multi-coloured world removed from nature to emphasise the distance between the haves (those for whom the spectacle is created) and the have not’s. Clearly this is film that as an eye on the current political mood.
It also helps that the cast is uniformly excellent. Jennifer Lawrence remains a name to watch, after the disappointment of X-Men: First Class (where the failings can be laid on the script) she here produces something almost as good as she did in Winters Bone. It’s not quite as complex a performance, but it is as subtle – similar to the way that Jodie Foster always seemed a little older than she was as a teenager in films.
Elsewhere Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson provide good support as her manager / mentor accordingly – the latter further establishing is transformation into one of America’s best supporting actors of his generation, and Stanley Tucci is quietly creepy as the perfectly manicured host.
Disappointingly, director Ross has decided to step aside for the sequel and I fear that given the success of this film they may now turn to a more commercially minded director and lose some of the flavour. Ross has quietly been turning out interesting, character dominated pictures over the last decade and this film sees that sensibility tied to a larger canvas hinting that if he was given the budget and the right property he could produce something very good indeed. You can’t help feel that whoever follows this up will produce something a little more safe, a little more generic than this rather than build upon the excellent, if unconventional footings that have been laid.