Release Date(s)2012 (November 8, 2016)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
When The Hunger Games books were first released, my initial impression was that they were simply another in a long string of sci-fi/fantasy stories written for young adults, designed to capitalize on the success of Harry Potter and Twilight. I’d heard the criticisms that they lacked sophistication and the “geek” complaints that they were too derivative of Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale and Stephen King’s earlier The Running Man, so I mostly ignored them. Then my friend Matt Rowe (of MusicTAP) – the single greatest sifter of media I know – suggested I give them a second look. He’d found them interesting and a quick read. Taking his advice, I plowed through the entire trilogy in a couple of days on my Kindle.
The setting of the first novel (and this film) is post apocalyptic America several hundred years from now, which has become a fascist nation-state called Panem. The wealthy live in a glittering Capitol city in the mountains with every material comfort known to man, while those in the twelve surrounding Districts struggle to survive and toil wearily to provide for the Capitol’s needs. Each year, boy and girl “tributes” from these Districts are chosen by lottery and sent to the Capitol to compete in elaborate “Hunger Games” on live television in a fight to the death. This is done both for the amusement of the Capitol and to keep the Districts in line – to remind them where the power lies. Against this backdrop, we follow 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a brave young woman who volunteers to compete in the games in the place of her younger sister, who is unexpectedly chosen in the lottery.
The thing that makes The Hunger Games compelling on the page is that the entire novel is written in the first person. You’re essentially reading the thoughts of the main character as she journeys to the Capitol and encounters excess and horror to equal her worst nightmares. Katniss’ running internal monologue brings a refreshing honesty to the narrative that makes up for the lack of sophistication in the prose. That honesty is important and I think it’s why so many readers, both young and old, have been drawn to these books. Kids today grow up in a world where they’re celebrated for simply advancing from grade to grade, where they’re given trophies just for competing, and they’re coddled to make sure their feelings aren’t hurt when they lose a game. Yet they look out at the real world and see a much tougher, troubled, and more dishonest place. They’re smart enough to spot what’s false around them, and sharp enough to get that what author Suzanne Collins has done in these books is build a metaphor for the world they live in, exaggerated to be sure but easily recognizable. Collins’ cleverness can be seen in the fact that (if you take a sampling of political opinion of the books), the Right hails the books as an indictment of Big Government and Big Media while the Left celebrates them as depicting the triumph of the 99% over the 1%. Everyone reads into the books exactly what they want to see. Scholastic Press and Lionsgate are laughing all the way to the bank.
Obviously, it’s difficult to tell a first-person narrative on film without clichéd voice-over narration, so director Gary Ross instead presents the action in a more traditional way. But he uses a cinema vérité style of documentary camerawork that lends the film a raw immediacy. Ross clearly knows and understands this material, and he’s cast exactly the right actors to make it work on screen. Particularly impressive is lead Jennifer Lawrence (you’ll know her from Winter’s Bone and X-Men: First Class), who brings tremendous depth to the character of Katniss and really elevates this film from the usual teen angst fest (masquerading as a sci-fi/action film) to something much more compelling. The supporting cast is absolutely pitch-perfect as well, including the likes of Donald Sutherland (as President Snow), Woody Harrelson (as a wonderfully edgy Hamish), Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna) and Stanley Tucci (as “Hunger Games” host Caesar Flickerman). All of this further elevated by deft production design that brings gritty realism to the District 12 locations and just the right measure of hyper-real yet not quite over the top gaudiness to the Capitol. It’s a very fine line, but the production team manages to walk it to near-perfection.
If I had a complaint about this film, it’s that – and this is going to sound a little crass - it’s not quite as violent as it should be. I understand why it’s not – showing kids brutally killing one another is a big red flag with parents and audiences and Lionsgate wants no part of it, I’m sure. But it’s the brutality of the book that makes it so shocking and compelling. You have to truly understand the horror of what the Capitol is doing to these kids in order to really be drawn emotionally into Katniss’ narrative. Showing the violence is also why the film version of Battle Royale works so well. It has to be horrifying. Ross’s film hides its violence cleverly, with camera movement and quick cuts, so you never see anything that would qualify as gore – just some brief blood and implied carnage. Again, I get it. But I wish there was an unrated cut that just pushed things a little bit further – not to the point of bad taste or offensiveness, but just enough to make the viewing experience genuinely edgy. Some fans will also experience the usual disappointments with specific scenes from the book not appearing in the film or not having quite the same impact as they do on the page. Still, those minor quibbles aide, Ross really does manage to elevate this material on the big screen in ways I didn’t expect. He’s delivered a richly cinematic and dystopian vision here, not to mention a surprisingly entertaining film.
The Hunger Games was shot on film in Super 35 and IMAX formats (the latter for select scenes) and was finished to a 2K Digital Intermediate. With a new HDR color timing pass, that DI was upscaled to 4K for its inclusion here in the original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The film looks pretty terrific actually. First of all, the resolution improvement – though slight – enhances the fine detail such that the image retains every bit of its filmic appearance. The film’s color palette is stylistically muted to fit the film’s dystopian tone, but I particularly love the use of HDR on this title. It’s more restrained; the colors aren’t as sugary vibrant as they are on many 4K titles. Yet they’re still rich, much more so than on the previous Blu-ray, and there’s an extraordinary range of subtle hues and shadings. The blacks are ink-deep, but also detailed. Highlights and reflections gleam coldly, yet are never overblown. Texturing is exquisite. Really, the image quality is impressive as hell.
Primary audio for this release is English Dolby Atmos, and it’s a reference quality presentation. The soundstage is big, wide, and buttery smooth. The dynamic range is terrific, with tons of space in the mix. Sound effects alternate between thunderous and quietly atmospheric, with subtle cues that linger and decay. The height channels are used to enhance that atmosphere, and kick in when aircraft fly overhead, crowds roars, and of course during the “tracker jacker” scene. You also get Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles included in English SDH and Spanish.
Here’s a surprise: The 4K disc actually includes a number of special features. First up, there’s a new audio commentary that’s exclusive to the 4K release with editor Stephen Mirrione, VFX supervisor Sheena Duggal, and supervising sound editor Lon Bender. From Disc Two of the original Blu-ray release (which we’ve reviewed previously at The Bits here), there’s the Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon featurette (14:15). You also get the feature-length The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games documentary (122:00 – which includes Countdown, Casting, Design, Arena Ready, On Location in Panem, Effects, Post Production, and May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor). Finally, you get Letters from the Rose Garden (9:08). All of these video features are upscaled from 1080p, and were produced by our old friend Cliff Stephenson – it’s all great material. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Disc Two of the original Blu-ray release included a few more extras that do not carry over here, including Controlling the Games, A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchel, the BD-exclusive Preparing for the Games: A Director’s Process, the Propaganda Film, and a Marketing Archive. Note that the package also includes the regular 2D Blu-ray version of the film (Disc One from the previous release), but there are no extras – it’s just the movie. There’s also a Digital HD Copy code on a paper slip in the packaging.
As dystopian cinema goes, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games is certainly no Blade Runner or A Clockwork Orange, but it’s better than you’re probably expecting and well worth your time – especially in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format. While it’s a shame that all of the great original extras haven’t carried over to 4K (which means you’ll probably want to keep your original Blu-ray release too), I do give Lionsgate credit for at least including the best of the available material and even adding a new feature too – and on the actual 4K disc to boot. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt