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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Hunger Games

August 18th, 2012

The Hunger Games - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Of the 15 films that have reached $400 million, all but one of them opened in the heart of summer, or in December. That one exception was The Hunger Games, which opened in March. Even films that open the weekend before Thanksgiving and have the entire holiday season rarely come close to $300 million, while films that open in March rarely top $200 million. You can not overstate the impressive nature of this film's success. However, there is a chance it was based on hype and not inherent quality. After all, the Twilight films are a huge hit, and the films are generally considered poor to terrible. So is it as good as its box office numbers would indicate? Or did the hype propel it forward?

The Movie

The film begins with some title cards describing The Hunger Games, as set forth in The Treaty of the Treason. Two children, one boy and one girl, come from each territory and are brought to the capital where they fight to the death in the arena until only one survives.

We are then introduced to Katniss Everdeen and her younger sister Primrose. The pair live in district 12, the mining district, the poorest of the districts. Prim was having a nightmare that she was the one selected as a tribute. Katniss calms her down, saying her name is in only once, so she won't be picked. After getting her sister back to sleep, Katniss sneaks off into the woods, which is a forbidden area, to hunt for food. There she meets Gale Hawthorne, a slightly older kid, who is up for tribute for the last time. They've hunted together in the woods for years and have talked about running away and living there full time. However, they both have younger siblings they have to look after.

Later that day when the tributes are selected, Prim's nightmare comes true and she is picked. Katniss instead volunteers to take her place. The boy who is selected is Peeta Mellark. The pair had met before. One year when Katniss's family was starving, Peeta, who works as a baker, gave her family bread. While on the way to the capitol, they meet Effie Trinket, the representative from the Capitol. They also meet Haymitch Abernathy, the last winner from District 12, who is now a hopeless drunk. And he's supposed to be their mentor. He does offer one bit of advice. The only way to win is to get gifts from the sponsors, and the only way to do that is to make people like them. To that end, they are cleaned up, given makeovers by stylists (Cinna in their case), and put on display.

Before the games begin, all of the tributes are put through some training, and meet some of their potential competitors. This includes Career kids from districts one and two: Marvel, Glimmer, Cato, and Clove. These places are rich enough that they could afford to set up an academy to train tributes, making them the most dangerous opponents. They win nearly every year. However, this makes them arrogant, and as Haymitch explains, that can be deadly. After days of training and showing off their skills to potential sponsors, the Careers are all ranked nine or ten out of twelve. Peeta is given an eight, much to his surprise. Katniss is given an eleven. In the final reveal, Peeta tries to win favor by announcing to the crowd that he is in love with Katniss. At first Katniss reacts, well reacts with violence. But Haymitch, Cinna, and Effie all agree that they can sell this to the crowd.

After some last minute preparations, the 24 tributes are brought to the area for The Hunger Games to begin. But this is a good place to stop the plot synopsis, because we start running into major spoilers here. It may seem strange to review The Hunger Games without talking about the actual game; however, it takes more than an hour for this to happen. During that time, we get to know the characters better, at least some of the characters. This is the Katniss show. We learn a little about Peeta and Haymitch before the fighting begins, but that's really it. As for when the fighting does begin, half of them die while fighting at the Cornucopia. From that point on, everything is far too great of a spoiler to get into.

So, does The Hunger Games live up to the hype? Yes. I'm happy to report this is one of the best movies I've seen this year, and I've seen a lot of movies in 2012, including several of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. This one isn't as good as Hugo, but it is better than War Horse, for instance. It has many strengths, including Jennifer Lawrence. After proving she can deliver an Oscar-caliber performance in Winter's Bone, she has what it takes to be an action star as well. She's not the only actor in the movie that is amazing. Isabelle Fuhrman was the best of the bad guys and she brought more to her role. Amanda Stenberg was equally strong as her polar opposite, Rue. And of course the more experienced actors were amazing. I can't remember the last time Donald Sutherland put in a bad performance. Even when he's in a bad movie he's great. Give him strong material, like he has in this film, and he's fantastic.

The movie delivers the action in a way that is both entertaining, but more importantly, has an emotional heart to it. This is in part due to Jennifer Lawrence's acting, but also in part due to the well-crafted story. Like the best science fiction has to offer, The Hunger Games talks about issues from today. As President Snow explains to Game Maker Crane, The Hunger Games are there to offer enough hope that the people in the districts have something to live for, but remain fearful of what the Capitol can do. That hope is more important in keeping the districts inline than the fear is, but too much hope will give them reason to rebel. That's a lot more deep than most science fiction films deal with, and the way the movie explores that subject is a real plus. Then again, a lot of science fiction films are not more deep than, "Explosions go boom." I'm looking at you, Michael Bay.

It doesn't quite deliver this message to its full potential, as the action overwhelms some of the story. Also, the love triangle does feel a little cliché. Then again, those are my only two complaints I have against the movie.

On a side note, I've heard a lot of reports of people cheering at the death of Clove, which is not the reaction I had to that scene. Granted, she was trying to trying to kill our hero, but I didn't blame a little kid for what the people in power make her do. If she has to train herself to be heartless to survive, that's not her fault.

The Extras

The Hunger Games hits the home market on a two-disc set; however, the first disc has no real extras. There's Metabeam Smart Ap and a Second Screen feature. I have nothing that works with either of those. The second disc begins with The World is Watching, an eight-part, two-hour making of documentary, starting at when Lionsgate won the rights to the movie. It talks about the the casting, the design, etc. It is incredibly in-depth. Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon is as in-depth during its 14-minute running time and goes into the buzz, the themes, etc., while it also touches on how it was adapted for the movie. Letters from the Rose Garden tackles the theme I mentioned above in more detail and how Donald Sutherland understood it. Controlling the Games looks at the Game Center, which was introduced in the movie and wasn't in the book. A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell is an interview with the director, Gary Ross, and a critic, Elvis Mitchell. Propaganda Film is the full Propaganda Film that we saw a clip from in the movie.

The only exclusive extra on the Blu-ray is Preparing for the Games: A Director's Process, a three-minute featurette with the director describing the difference from writing and film, with a look at the script, the storyboard and the final film for one scene.

The video is near reference level. The details are almost uniformly amazing, the colors are strong, with some aesthetic choices having an effect here. The area is constantly shifted to the green end of the spectrum, while the Game Center is shifted to the blue. This does mean the colors don't pop as much as they otherwise would, but you can hardly blame the DVD for that. The blacks are deep, the contrast is solid, it goes without say there are no compression issues, etc. While the video is near reference, the audio is reference level material. The 7.1 track is simply amazing. Everything is perfect from clarity, to dynamics, to depth, to immersion, to the power of the bass. This is a movie you can use to show off your home theater system.

Finally we move onto the price. The DVD costs $17 and the Blu-ray costs $20. It isn't a combo pack, but that is still a fantastic deal.

The Verdict

The Hunger Games on DVD or Blu-ray is Pick of the Week material. It is simple as that. I can't wait to see the next movies and if they are merely close as good as this film, they will be must haves as well.

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