Blu-ray Disc review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits
The Hunger Games
2012 (2012) - Lionsgate
Released on Blu-ray on August 18th, 2012
Also available on DVD
Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 19
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 was 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 of 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.
Little needs to be said about the audiovisual quality of the film on Blu-ray on Disc One, other than it's first rate. The color palate of the 1080p image is subdued for the first portion of the film, reflecting the bleak atmosphere of District 13. But when the scene shifts to the Capitol, colors are vibrant and pop off the screen. Detail and contrast are both excellent throughout. The primary audio option is a 7.1 DTS-HD MA mix of splendid quality, providing clear dialogue, good atmospheric immersion and thunderous bass when required (exemplified by the scene in which Katniss is unexpectedly attacked with fireballs in the arena). Start to finish, it's a fine presentation.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray offers a number of very good features on Disc Two. The highlight is special edition producer Cliff Stephenson's excellent feature-length documentary The World is Watching: The Making of The Hunger Games. It runs a full two hours and covers the making of the film literally from beginning to end - including the selection of the director, adapting the novel, casting, pre-production, filming from one location to the next, the stunt work (a particularly strong section), visual effects, editing, scoring, release and even a bit of the aftermath. On top of that, shorter featurettes cover additional aspects of the process. Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon looks at the original novels and their success; Controlling the Games takes you behind the scenes of filming in the game control center; Preparing for The Games: A Director's Process (exclusive to the Blu-ray and particularly excellent) has Ross discussing his approach to organizing himself prior to filming; and A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell is just what it sounds like. My favorite piece is Letters from the Rose Garden, in which we learn that Sutherland wrote Ross a letter about his insights into the nature of President Snow, which then inspired Ross to write additional scenes for the character. Some may find it politically challenging but it's a fascinating look at the give and take between actors and directors. Finally, you get the Capitol's propaganda film for the games (as shown during the lottery scene) in its entirety, along with a marketing archive of trailers and poster and production images. Plus there's the usual Digital Copy and UltraViolet options, along with Metabeam "smart remote" app compatibility. I'll tell you, Ross impresses the hell out of me throughout these extras - they're especially revealing as he talks about his take on the story and characters, and his collaboration with Collins in adapting the novel for the screen.
There are a few things to note regarding the extras: First, Collins appears almost nowhere in the special features - there's just one photograph of her, and she's otherwise represented by editors from Scholastic Press. One assumes that Collins declined to participate. Second, there's no audio commentary track on Disc One. I'm told that Ross felt that everything he wanted to say had been covered in the documentaries, so there was no need to do one. Third, there IS at least one Easter egg in the set and it's relatively easy to find. Finally, there are no deleted scenes on the disc. That's not because they're being held for another more elaborate release, but because there really aren't any to speak of - 95% of the initial cut that Ross delivered apparently made it to the screen. Those minor caveats aside, this is a very good supplement package that really enhances your appreciation of the film. It's all very much worth checking out, especially if you're a fan of the film or the books - nothing feels like EPK material or marketing fluff. That's saying something these days. (Job well done, Cliff!)
One other thing worth mentioning: There are a few retail-exclusive versions of this title. If you buy the Blu-ray at Target you get a bonus disc with 4 additional featurettes about the "tributes" (about 49 minutes of content) and animated bios of each of them. Best Buy's version comes in special packaging with a "numbered acrylic keepsake". And Walmart's exclusive includes a replica Mockingjay pendant.
Really my only disappointment with The Hunger Games experience on Blu-ray has nothing to do with the film or the disc itself, but rather subsequently learning that Ross isn't helming the sequel Catching Fire (due in theatres in November 2013). I fear that all too much of what's good here is a result of Ross' experienced hand at the helm. In any case, if you passed on The Hunger Games when it first powered through your local cinema, I definitely recommend that you give it a try on Blu-ray. It's no Blade Runner or A Clockwork Orange, but it's better than you expect and well worth your time.