Hunger Shaky-Cam Games
I have just returned from watching a film about an epic romantic triangle between a director, his editing suite, and the shaky-cam that he couldn’t resist. It was a passionate, torrid tale that exploded across the screen like a lens-flare, but unfortunately it was the only thing that was passionate in this cold, lifeless big-budget film.
As you might guess, I didn’t like the Hunger Games film much. I know this seems to put me in the minority at the moment (I suspect not as much once the overwhelming hype-bubble wears off) but I’m used to being there so that’s okay. It wasn’t a bad film, but it wasn’t an especially good film either- coming squarely down somewhere in between.
Why didn’t I like it? Well, I’d say there were three reasons I can directly pinpoint. First, the way it was filmed and edited. Second, the characterization, or lack thereof. And the third can be summed up in two words- Battle Royale.
I don’t think I was five minutes into this film before I wanted to shoot the cameraman with extreme prejudice, pry the camera rig from his cold dead hands and stick it on a steadycam mount where it belonged. Now, I have never made a secret of my dislike for the shaky-cam approach, but I know it can (like any cinematic technique) be an effective way to tell a story visually. I have in fact seen it done well, and used to great effect to represent action, disorientation, and telling a story from a character’s point of view.
It’s a good technique in moderation, and like any spice can really bring out the flavour of the film it’s used in. But, just like ginger or pepper, if you use too much of it, the receiver won’t be able to taste anything except the spice in question. The Hunger Games for me was a prime example of this. I was dizzy within the first five minutes, annoyed within ten, and outright annoyed after fifteen minutes of non-stop quick-cuts and shaky-cam. It was like this director was afraid that if the film stopped moving for more than half a second that the audience would suddenly start paying attention to the quality of the film and story.
Or maybe he was afraid we’d get attached to the characters, or god forbid, actually care about them. Well, no worries there, the majority of characters were as flat as flat could be and so thinly sketched I don’t even think they could qualify as “archetypes”. There’s only one character in the film who actually changes and grows through it- Woody Harrelson’s character if Haymitch Abernathy. He starts out as a disillusioned drunk, but through the inspiration of the lead characters Katniss redeems himself and changes his ways. Too bad the lead character of Katniss doesn’t change, she becomes a little more manipulative, but that’s about it. Same for her wannabe boyfriend, who (spoiler) actually tries to help the villains kill her at one point, but then gets forgiven just because.
The rest of the competitors aren’t even thinly sketched characters, they’re just blips that appear and die quickly- which like the camera-work I think was intentional. This is a film that was using every trick in the book to keep itself at a PG rating, so the last thing they wanted was any kind of emotional resonance or consequences for the audience. They wanted to keep things nice and level, so they produced a film that looked gorgeous, but was shallow and unemotional enough that it wouldn’t actually stimulate anyone or anything except on a surface level.
It’s Coke Zero, in movie form!
Which is probably why I was so seriously unimpressed by it.
That, and I’ve already seen this story with a tenth of the budget, and ten times better.
It’s a Japanese film called Battle Royale.
Based on a novel from the mid-Ninties, BR tells the story of a dystopian setting where the worst high-school class in a dystopian alternate Japan is placed on an island together to be made an example of by the totalitarian government. Each student has an explosive collar on their neck, and at the end of three days if there is more than one person from the class alive, they will all die. Then they are let loose on the island with weapons to deal with the situation. The whole thing is televised, of course, and is treated as a reality show. (Interestingly enough, this was written BEFORE Survivor or start of the American reality show boom.)
BR is a touching story about love, friendship, trust and the human spirit. The film is one of my favourites, despite being dark and at times a little bloody, exactly because it makes you care about the characters and takes you on the dark journey with them. You know the villains, and you know the heroes, and you experience the tragedy of the whole thing. (Yeah, the movie version goes a little gonzo near the end, but I can forgive it because of the rest of the story.)
It’s everything Hunger Games pretends to be, but with heart instead of glam. Mostly because the producers wanted you to care about the characters, and didn’t care about what kind of rating they’d get or how much money they’d make.