Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian: "Den of the Sleeping Demon" (December 27, 1980)

In “Den of the Sleeping Dragon,” Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel travel to a stretch of land that looks like the Grand Canyon, and find humans -- “The Glider People” -- imperiled by cat-people and other mutants.

Worse, a dark wizard called Ju-Dang plots to awaken a slumbering demon from his 2,000 year slumber, and gain from that demon the secret of ultimate power.

With the help of two youngsters, Shara and Merlin, Thundarr and his friends attempt to find the sleeping demon first. 

They finally find it in an ancient hospital laboratory, and realize that the demon is actually a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong…

“Den of the Sleeping Demon” explains perfectly the magic of Thundarr the Barbarian, in my opinion. The stories are no great shakes, and the characters have no depth.

But the imagery and backgrounds are startling, and often quite beautiful. 

In many cases, the action is set against the ruins of our world, whether in New York, Washington D.C. or Chinatown. 

But here, we see something else, and it’s a perfect example of Thundarr the Barbarian’s visual aplomb. 

Specifically, there is a pitched battle between Thundarr’s forces and the army of mutants and cat people. 

A typical cartoon of this vintage might have had them battling it out on a wide-open plain, or in a jungle, or even, perhaps, underwater.

But “Den of the Sleeping Demon” sets the action…in a 2,000 year old playground…the playground of death! 

In one shot after the other during the fight montage, we witness Thundarr and Ookla fighting…on “play” equipment that they could reasonably have no knowledge about. 

Thundarr battles an enemy on a slide, and near a swing set.  Ookla tosses a bad guy onto a see-saw, and rips a rotating or spinning platform out of the ground. Thundarr leaps off a jungle-jim, etc.

It’s all kind of funny, but inventive as hell.

The best thing is that the episode offers no commentary on the fight’s setting.  The playground location is just a little -- but important – detail that excavates some aspect of this barbaric world.  The background of Thundarr’s life is, literally, a destroyed culture….ruins of inexplicable and bizarre nature.  He takes the oddities of this long-gone culture for granted when he must, and just gets down to business.

But it is really imaginative to have a Saturday morning series stage a pitched battle on the ruins of a playground. I can imagine that if I had seen this episode as a kid, I would have been aping Thundarr on the playground at school come Monday morning.

The rest of “Den of the Sleeping Demon” is not nearly so much fun as the audacious playground fight.

Instead, it’s the same story we’ve seen again and again. There’s another imperiled human village.  There’s another evil wizard on a quest to recover some object, person or device that can give him power. 

And finally, there’s Thundarr’s heroic intervention.

This episode also has one other interesting factor beside the playground, however: Merlin’s malapropisms. 

The character just can’t seem to get pre-holocaust speech right, as we see.   He exclaims “Far in!” instead of “Far Out!” and so forth.  

This is a little goofy, but at least it’s another point of differentiation in the formula...

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991 - 1992): "Cheers" (November 21, 1992)

In “Cheers,” Stink finds a grove of fruit trees.  There, the fruit has fermented…having an alcoholic effect on him.  When Kevin realizes that Stink is “hammered,” he decides to partake of the berries as well.

Later, Kevin works up the courage to ask Christa out on a date, but feels like he needs a boost.  He returns to the fruit grove and gets drunk again.  He then crashes the Porter’s car into a tree, and misses his date with Christa.

Embarrassed, Kevin asks Stink to lie for him.  Stink does so, but is wracked with guilt.  Meanwhile, Mr. Porter suspects that Kevin is not telling the truth about the accident.

So, this is what it comes to.

We now get a Land of the Lost episode -- set in a prehistoric jungle, mind you -- about the dangers of drinking-and-driving. 

At one point, Kevin even says “Lucky I had my seat belt on,” so as to work in another lecture about proper teen behavior.  (When driving intoxicated, be sure to fasten your seat belt…).

I realize, of course, that this is a kid’s show, but kids sure as hell know when they are being talked down to, and when a TV program is making a point at the expense not only of entertainment, but of credibility too.

In particular, the final “message” -- as delivered by Kevin -- is cringe-worthy: “I thought that fruit would solve my problems. But it only made bigger ones.”

And that’s your sermon for the week.

“Cheers” is all wrong for a lot of reasons.

Other than the truly bizarre idea to vet a drunk-driving tale in a world of dinosaurs and only one motor vehicle (!), the episode corrupts the character of Christa (Shannon Day). 

Kevin asks her out, and she suddenly -- as though brainwashed -- this woman of the jungle, who has survived on her own since childhood, becomes a fawning school girl.

Before this episode Christa has never shown more than a passing interest in Kevin as a friend. His affections have always been unrequited.

But now suddenly she just wants to be his girlfriend?

That’s certainly a change…and not a good one.

As bad as the moralizing about drunk driving surely is, the episode’s montage -- which cross-cuts Christa and Kevin prepping for the big night -- is even worse.  Kevin pops a zit, and Christa puts on lipstick. It’s all just…unspeakably awful and dumb.

It is easy to romanticize the original Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977) if you grew up with it, but as I’ve written before, those stories were largely about something relevant…or at least interesting. The stories on the old show had an environmental feel, with the Marshalls acting as shepherds of the land, and some episodes dealt nicely with emotions such as loneliness, or home-sickness, or even mourning.  Those episodes had a curiosity about Physics, mythology, and history, and science fiction.

The new Land of the Last stories like “Cheers” may aggressively feature a point, but they tend to have no depth or curiosity.  As a result, the stories practically disintegrate before your eyes as you watch.

The good news?  Only two episodes of the remake series to go…

Friday, March 28, 2014

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Finger Knives Edition

The Films of 1984: Dreamscape

Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape (1984) is a science-fiction action movie that involves psychic researchers entering the dreams and nightmares of their patients and becoming “active participants” in them.

The thirty-year old film shares some qualities in common with Douglas Trumball’s Brainstorm (1983), but is ultimately not as dazzling in terms of its special effects or imagination.  Perhaps more to the point, Dreamscape also features many plot-points -- including a man with finger-knives – that appear in Wes Craven’s masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

But where Brainstorm and A Nightmare on Elm Street approach their subject matters with a sense of gravitas and seriousness, Dreamscape often descends instead into silly action clichés, and features chase scenes (on motor bikes, no less…) instead of any consistently-applied leitmotif about the nature of the human subconscious, or the power of dreams.

These facts established, Dreamscape is very much a product of its turbulent time, and it expresses beautifully the “apocalypse mentality” of the 1980s Cold War Era. 

Lest we forget, this was the age of The Road Warrior (1982), War Games (1983), and The Day After (1983), when fears about nuclear Armageddon ran high in the nation.  Russia had invaded Afghanistan in early 1980, and President Reagan began his administration as a hard-line Hawk.  

Remember, President Reagan -- in addition to being a peacemaker with the Soviet Union in his second term -- was initially the fellow who joked on a live mic that he had outlawed Russia and that we would start bombing it in “five minutes.” He was also the leader who said that the Soviet Union was an “Evil Empire,” and that -- once launched from submarines -- nuclear missiles could be recalled.

Such statements, in conjunction with right-wing debates about “winnable” nuclear war, created an atmosphere of fear. When you coupled these comments with Secretary of the Interior James Watt’s comments that we were living in the “End Times”…things got really scary.

I grew up in the 1980s, lived through these times, and heard -- as a boy -- quite clearly the comments politicians were making about our planet’s future. I went to bed many a night in those years worrying about nuclear holocaust and wondering if I would live long enough to attend college, or get married. Dreamscape connects with such fears very well.

Today, we are all fortunate indeed that President Reagan underwent a re-think of his policies -- similar to the one the president of Dreamscape undergoes -- and became such a committed “warrior” for peace in his second term, going so far, even, as to walk-back his “Evil Empire” statement.

But the point is here is not politics, rather that this very 1980s apocalypse mentality context finds terrifying visualization in Dreamscape, and that the moments concerning nuclear war remain the film’s most powerful and resonant. 

Throughout Dreamscape, we see mushroom clouds, hideously-scarred children, and a burned-out crimson landscape function as symbols of man’s self-destructive ways.  At one point, a President who blames himself for nuclear war takes a train tour through the apocalyptic landscape, and spies the ruins of the capital building.

America -- that shining city on the hill -- is in ruins because two countries couldn’t see to get along, or to cooperate peacefully.

For all its goofy lightness and ho-hum concentration on action and romance, Dreamscape actually works best as a science fiction film when its phantasms grow darkest; when they deal bluntly with the national “dread” of nuclear war rather than the personal, subconscious fears of specific patients. 

Dreamscape could have been a great film about the biggest fear of an epoch. Instead, it’s just a mediocre film that never quite lives up to its incredible potential.

“Who’s your decorator? Darth Vader?”

The U.S. government recruits a small-time con artist and psychic, Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) to work at Thornhill College’s dream research center, located in the Bates Building.

Dr. Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw) and Dr. Paul Novotny (Max Von Sydow) train Alex to psychically-link with dreaming patients, including a construction worker with a fear of heights and a boy, Buddy (Cory Yothers) suffering from nightmares of a snake man. Alex is successful in treating both patients, and helping them overcome their nocturnal fears.

At the same time, however, Alex’s success fosters resentment in another dream “traveler,” Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly).

In addition to being psychic, Tommy is a murderer, a trait which comes in handy when shadowy government agent Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) approaches him with a secret assignment.

Specifically, the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) has been suffering from dreams involving nuclear apocalypse, and Bob fears that he will give away America’s nuclear store at upcoming peace talks with the Soviet Union. 

To prevent this eventuality, Bob orders Tommy Ray to enter the Commander-in-Chief’s dreams…and assassinate him.  To the rest of the world, it will appear that the President simply died of a heart attack in his sleep.

Alex learns the truth about Bob’s plans, however, and -- without the aid of instrumentation -- also enters the President’s dream to confront Tommy.

“He’s going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent...”

Although decidedly not a great film, Dreamscape perhaps deserves a little credit for two things.

First, it expresses perfectly the “apocalypse mentality” of its time, as noted above.

The president’s recurring dreams of apocalypse are strongly-visualized by Ruben.  The film opens with them, in fact, as the President’s (deceased) First Lady attempts -- and fails -- to outrun a nuclear mushroom and shock wave.

Later, the President (in another nightmare) tours the post-apocalyptic landscape in an ornate train car, and he gazes out across the barren, blood-red landscape. Out on the ruined land, we see the Capitol building, and the Lincoln Memorial.

Importantly, this vision of the President on a train, observing the land, calls to mind the American tradition of presidential whistle-stop tours.  Only here, a leader surveys not a beautiful land of plenty and a happy populace, but a ruined land of death and desolation.

Another dream finds the President confronted by horribly burned and scarred children, and that’s a potent image, as well.  In any war, children are always innocent victims.  They have no control over the policies of the government, or even the policies of their parents.  Here, the children have their innocence -- and their future -- taken away from them in grisly, visceral terms.  This is the true obscenity of nuclear war. Millions of children will die in such an event simply because two countries can’t accept that they have different philosophies about economics

Yet another nuclear vision is powerfully wrought in Dreamscape: Alex and the President end up in a subway car of scarred survivors, and that packed, modern car contrasts perfectly with the ornate old-fashioned presidential train. 

It’s as if this old, set-in-his-ways President cannot quite think in modern terms, and so out of misguided notions of patriotism and peace through strength, he leads the contemporary nation -- a nation of subways and commuters, not romantic whistle-stops -- into ruin.

Secondly, it should be noted that Dreamscape actually predicts real-life world events to a large degree.

On the latter front, Eddie Albert makes for a very Reagan-esque president a gentle-seeming, avuncular older man.

His terrifying dreams of nuclear annihilation lead him to re-think his policy about the Cold War, and he plans to negotiate with the Russians at an upcoming summit in Geneva.  But by doing so, the President provokes an insurrection or rebellion on his right flank. Hawks in his administration, including Blair, are afraid he will give up the nuclear store and simply “appease” the Russians.

This is almost precisely what happened in real life, in 1985.

First, President Reagan experiences his conversion about nuclear war. But that conversion arose not from personal dreams or nightmares, but rather from a viewing of The Day After, allegedly.

When Reagan softened his hardline stance regarding the Soviet Union, in anticipation of – again -- a Geneva Summit, members of his administration rebelled.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, for instance, wrote a letter to the Washington Post urging President Reagan not to give up any bargaining chips, and not to appease Gorbachev in any way. The letter was made available to the press on November 16, 1985.

Fortunately, no one attempted to assassinate President Reagan as he transitioned from “cold warrior” to crusader against nuclear war.

Once more this is the journey Albert’s president takes in Dreamscape.

There’s one another effective scene in Dreamscape worth discussing, though it is off the subject of the 1980s apocalypse mentality.

Alex journeys inside Buddy’s dreamscape, and encounters a world straight out of German Expressionism, at least if we take the angles and compositions into effect.  In this world of cockeyed, jarring angles, Buddy asks his father to save him from the Snake Man, but the father is out to lunch, and can’t -- or won’t – help him. So Alex runs with him, and they descend through what looks like infinity itself, on a suspension staircase surrounded by blackness.

Despite some bad stop-motion photography involving the Snake Man, this night terrors scene is effective because it speaks legitimately in the language of nightmares. In our nightmares, we are all children in a sense -- alone and vulnerable -- and our imaginations run wild, unfettered. 

Between the expressionist angles, the snake man, and the dizzying descent, down and down, Dreamscape effectively visualizes this idea, as well as the notion of parents who somehow can’t help us. 

In dreams, we’re always on our own…unless Alex Gardner shows up.

Given such successes, it’s a shame that Dreamscape isn’t a better film.  All the material involving Alex getting pursued at the race-track by small-time hoods is a waste of time, and even the romantic angle with lovely Kate Capshaw seems to diminish the film. For the most part, the film feels light and inconsequential, rather than searing or sharp. Except for the moments in Buddy’s nightmare, or on the President’s post-nuclear landscape, Dreamscape feels jokey and kind of dim-witted.

I should preface my next remarks by stating that I have no idea how this occurred, but Dreamscape also ends up aping, relentlessly, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Dreamscape was released first, but Craven’s script made the rounds in Hollywood well before either film was made. Spontaneous creation does happen occasionally in Hollywood, but there is certainly something fishy about the narrative overlap between films.

Both efforts, for instance, feature scenes set at dream clinics, where scientists discuss the nature of REM sleep and dreams.

Both films find the opportunity to discuss the Malaysian Dream People.

And it’s impossible not to notice that Tommy Ray sprouts finger-knives at one point, or that the Snake-Man battles Alex in what looks like a hellish boiler room…Freddy’s digs.

Again, I cannot and would not assert rip-off or plagiarism without further knowledge of the facts. But I will state this: All the moments of similarity carry less psychic weight and impact in Dreamscape.

In other words, the moments discussing the Dream People or REM sleep feel casually dropped into Dreamscape, as if to give it a veneer of respectability or legitimacy, whereas in A Nightmare on Elm Street, all those elements tie together brilliantly with other aspects of the story. 

For instance, in the Craven film the Malaysian Dream People are discussed because they turn their backs on Evil, and that’s the very thing that Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) -- ever the digger (hence the film’s comparison to Hamlet) -- has trouble doing.

Accordingly, it’s much easier to make a case for the validity of these concepts in Nightmare than it is in terms of Dreamscape, even though Dreamscape arrived in theaters first. 

Dreamscape is one of those films from your youth that you probably remember fondly. Alas, I found that the fond memories are erased a bit in modern re-watch. 

The film features powerful nightmare imagery, but instead of exploring it fully, wants to waste your time on car chases and bike-chases, and fisticuffs.  The movie strenuously avoids trying to be about the thing it is supposed to be about: the subconscious mind.

Thus Dreamscape’s approach is not the stuff that dreams (or good science fiction movies…) are generally made of.

Movie Trailer: Dreamscape (1984)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

At Anorak: "5 Movie Maniacs That Wanted to Be Freddy Krueger"

My new article at Anorak is called "5 Movie Maniacs That Wanted to be Freddy Krueger" and it remembers that wonderful time in American pop culture -- circa 1987-1989 -- when every new Hollywood horror movie tried to rip the rubber-reality crown from Freddy Krueger's (Robert Englund's) burned head.

Here's a snippet:

THERE’S an old saying that goes: “if you’re going to take a shot at the king, make sure you don’t miss.”
Such words of wisdom also apply to the movie monsters of the 1980s.
Thirty years ago, in 1984, Wes Craven’s “bastard son of a hundred maniacs,” Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) rose up to become the reigning king of the horror film with the theatrical release ofA Nightmare on Elm Street.  The Gloved One took New Line — “The House That Freddy Built” — straight to the top with him.
Between 1984 and 1989, New Line produced five A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels — and a TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares (1998 – 1990) — which featured the scarred, quipping maniac. One academic study conducted during this era suggested that more American children could recognize Freddy than they could Abraham Lincoln.
So the most pertinent question for other genre filmmakers was, simply: how do you unseat this pizza-faced box office juggernaut?
The genre media, including Fangoria, happily played this guessing game too.
Which new horror movie, asked the magazine, was going to be the next A Nightmare on Elm Street?

Who was going to become “the next Freddy?”

Cult-Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

I’m a long-time admirer of Dystopian Cinema -- movies about morally, culturally, and economically bankrupt “future worlds” -- and thus I was very much looking forward to The Hunger Games.  

Directed by Gary Ross from Suzanne Collin’s best-selling novel of the same name, the epic film involves a teenage girl who becomes a contestant in a life-or-death (televised) spectacle in a decadent future society

That brief description conjures memories of many other dystopian films. There’s a strong under-current in the genre involving blood-sports as “bread and circuses” attractions for beleaguered, oppressed citizens of “future states.”  

We saw similar gladiatorial games in Death Race 2000 (1975), Rollerball (1975), and The Running Man (1987) to name only a few. 

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Blood of Heroes (1989) also feature material of a similar nature, showcasing worlds where life-and-death “games” are the law, and, not coincidentally, the only avenue by which to achieve independence from the corrupt state.

The Hunger Games develops its tale of the futuristic blood sport by comparing the games not to the world of professional TV sports (like Rollerball) or TV game shows (like The Running Man), but to a more timely topic: reality television show competitions

Not unlike American Idol (2001 - ) or Dancing with the Stars (2005 - ), the story’s  violent annual “Hunger Games” make a celebrity of a resourceful  contestant, while other, perhaps-equally resourceful youngsters also vie for the crown and fleeting fame.  And not unlike Survivor (2000 - ) alliances are forged during game play, presumably to be broken as contestant attrition sets in.   Meanwhile, producers and other behind-the-scenes players keep changing the rules to make the show a bigger “hit,” and one more appealing to the audience at home.

The Hunger Games combines its apropos commentary on reality TV contests with some very vague political commentary.  I’ve seen the film described in print as a both a metaphor for the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and as a right-wing anti-government screed. 

The phrase I just used -- “very vague” -- in fact, captures much of what’s amiss with The Hunger Games.  Although the film is undeniably buttressed by a forceful lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence and a welcome lack, overall, of sensationalism, the film’s future world never quite seems believable or genuine.  Instead, it comes off as half-baked.

Too many factors here -- too many ideas – are left purposefully vague, and therefore the film is neither the searing satire of our modern culture that it could be, nor the heroic poem that some critics view it as.  

In other words, the filmmakers often back away from the "core" of the material, and don't play it for all it is worth.  This movie should be about America in 2012, about the qualities we ask of our our "stars," and the ways we broach fame.  Instead, The Hunger Games is about none of those things, at least not in a fashion that is cerebral or intriguing.

“This is the time to show them everything.”

In the oppressive future state of Panem, the insurrectionists living in twelve poverty-stricken districts are required every year to give up two “tributes” -- a male and female each between the ages of twelve and eighteen -- to participate in a life or death contest called The Hunger Games.

In District 12, resourceful Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) volunteers to be a tribute for the 74th Annual Games after her innocent young sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected on the day of the Reaping.  She takes her sister’s place, and steels herself for battle.

Katniss joins Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy in District 12 who harbors a crush on her, for the journey to the Capitol City.  Soon they meet their mentor for the games, one-time winner Hayitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), as well as image advisors Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).

Before the games commence, Katniss and Peeta train with their fellow contestants, learning their strengths and weaknesses in the process.  They are also introduced on TV by the Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  Katniss makes a splash with viewers, and Peeta admits on-air that he is in love with her.

When the bloody games start, Katniss must determine how to stay alive, and how to treat Peeta, who is sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe, apparently.  Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) grows suspicious of Katniss and fears she could upset the Capitol’s grip on the districts…

“They just want a good show.  That’s all they want.”

I have not read Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, The Hunger Games (2008), or any of its follow-ups so I cannot, alas, comment meaningfully on whether or not this 2012 film represents an adequate or faithful adaptation of the literary material. 

I can only study the film as a movie-going experience and as a complete visual and thematic work of art.  Therefore, my observations in this review will focus on those aspects rather than judge fidelity to the literary source material.

In brief, I found the film’s two primary strengths to be its sense of earnestness and the central performance by Jennifer Lawrence.  

The Hunger Games never feels gimmicky, slick, or sensational, and Lawrence projects fortitude, sincerity, and intelligence as the film’s protagonist.  When the movie succeeds, it’s because Lawrence is riveting and even magnetic as Katniss Everdeen, and because the filmmakers generally take the subject matter seriously.  On the surface, it all seems very impressive, if overly straight-forward.

When The Hunger Games fails, I assess, it’s largely because the dynamics of the dystopian world seem unnecessarily vague or inconsistent.

We see this sort of “muddle” throughout the film, and therefore it is difficult for The Hunger Games to speak meaningfully or even directly to its audience regarding theme or meaning.  

For instance: politics. The film is either an Occupy Wall Street film, about the rich 1% lording it over the poor 99 percent, or it is a film about the fear of over-reaching, outwardly benevolent but really malevolent government.   

The Hunger Games attempts to straddle the line between those red state/blue state viewpoints, but only ends up with a wide stance, if you get the reference.  

In other words, the audiences can’t judge the film’s perspective or viewpoint on the world.  Is it the rich elite who made the world a hell?  Or overreaching government?    In the end, it all just comes across as kind of, well, simple-minded.  What we are left with is that evil government is evil, decadent people are decadent, and good citizens are good.  That's as deep as it gets.  The film is smart enough to tap the Zeitgeist, but it can't commit to a specific aspect of that Zeitgeist.

We see the same problem recur with Katniss and Peeta.  Do they actually love each other, or is it all a show for the cameras, just like on The Bachelor or Joe Millionaire?   

In the end, both Peeta and Katniss play up the star-crossed lovers angle to survive the games, but is the show of affection ever heartfelt or authentic?  Well, The Hunger Games will get back to you on that, coming soon in a theater near you! 

In other words, the film reserves the exploration of that important idea for the sequel.  Yet it is necessary to have some answer here, or the movie offers a woefully incomplete emotional experience.   As it stands, we just don’t know why Peeta and Katniss behave as they do here, now.  Peeta doesn’t bring up his love of Katniss until he is on live TV, for example, which suggests to me it’s a gimmick to help him stay alive.  Katniss realizes that the love affair is, similarly, a way to get ahead. 

Yet, by the same token, Peeta hunts down Katniss during the games with a group of others, which is hardly the act of a soul mate.  And then, if he does authentically love her, why doesn't he murder in cold blood the other contestants (staking out the tree where she is hiding), while they sleep?

But the point is that the movie just...doesn’t...commit.  

It doesn’t commit, I submit, because if it did we, as viewers, would be forced to reckon with how we feel about Peeta and Katniss based on the fact that they agree to a mutually beneficial lie.  If they aren't pretending, and really do have feelings for each other, then they aren't so bad, so shallow.  The movie tries to  play it both ways but just seems, again, muddled.

The Hunger Games could have commented meaningfully (and perhaps mercilessly) here on how reality stars will do and say anything on camera to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame -- Bristol Palin, j'accuse -- but this point is barely touched upon in the film.  

Why set up a satire of reality TV and then drop it without comment?

There’s a similar problem with the violence in the film. Katniss lands in an immensely competitive, immensely violent game, and yet she survives almost entirely by being in the right place at the right time, and by unexpectedly getting help at the very last instant.  She actually kills, by my count, only three of her twenty-three opponents.  And of those, she only kills one directly.  

One blonde villain dies when Katniss cuts a beehive from a tree branch, and the competitor is stung to death.    Katniss wasn't attempting to kill, however.  She was crafting a distraction so she could escape.  

The second kill is sort of a mercy killing, sparing a villain from painful death by huge, slobbering wild-dog monsters. 

Katniss actually only murders one person in cold blood. She shoots Rue’s (Amandla Stenberg’s) killer in a fit of rage and adrenaline.   

Laughably, even the masters of the game keep changing the rules so Katniss doesn't have to kill Peeta to survive the game.  Convenient, no?

Because Katniss never must make the choice to kill someone like Rue -- an innocent little kid -- the movie never addresses the central question of violence and its morality.

Again, I see this development as a failure on the part of the film (and I would assume the book too…) to really commit to its central idea . If Katniss wants to survive the games, she has essentially two options: team-build with the other players and commence an insurrection against the games, or kill her opponents outright.  She does neither, at least not in any organized or deep sense.  Instead, Katniss hides for the first part of the games, teams-up with Rue for a while, and then manages to endure alone while the others fight.

Once more, the hard questions are totally avoided.  

Is it right to kill another human being for your own survival?  

For the survival of your family?

The Hunger Games features children killing children on screen -- something I’ve rarely if ever seen in a horror movie, for example -- but makes absolutely no commentary on the morality underlying these killings.  This way, we can continue to gaze at Katniss as a hero, I suppose.  She's more of an innocent bystander than an active participant in the violence.

How do I feel about this?  

In two words: cop out.

For all of Jennifer Lawrence’s skill in bringing the character of Katniss to the screen, I find that she succeeds without much help from the non-commital script.  Katniss is given no meaningful character arc whatsoever in The Hunger Games. She starts our resilient, independent and capable, is judged an "11" by the games keepers (meaning resilient, independent and capable, in other words), and then emerges the winner of the Hunger Games (with Peeta) by being -- wait for it -- resilient, independent and capable.  The character has no learning curve in the film.  Katniss is in the end as she was in the beginning.

Other aspects of the plot are also deliberately vague. The Capitol apparently possesses miracle medicine and -- unbelievably -- Star Trek-type technology which can seems to  turn energy into matter and “beam” hostile dog-things into the fighting  arena.  

Where did this high-technology come from in a post-war dystopian universe where resources are limited?  

Why does the Capitol need supplies from the districts if it can create matter out of energy, or even just teleport real matter?  

Such amazing technological capabilities are never directly addressed in the film, and thus the universe of  The Hunger Games doesn’t quite feel real.  It certainly isn't very believable.   I submit it would have been much better to see dog-handlers releasing the slavering beasts from cages at the rim of the arena rather than featuring this unexplained and inconsistent technological achievement. 

For instance, if the gamesters of the Capitol can create animals, generate fires and so forth from energy, they can certainly create a CGI Katniss and get her to do what they want her do.  They could have killed the real one, and then had the CGI one act badly, reflecting poorly on her reputation and mitigating her capacity to be a martyr.   Problem solved!

Indeed, this one technological touch ruins a lot of the legitimacy of the action in The Hunger Games.  Katniss might lay low enough for a while to last for much of the game, but there' s no way she could beat a state apparatus armed with Starfleet-era medicine, genetic engineering capabilities, and the equivalent of replicators.  That's a bridge too far.

Also, and I'm certain this has been said before, there is not a single contestant in the games -- not one -- who looks remotely hungry, or starving.  The whole idea underlying this culture is that the Districts live in abject poverty, scrambling for resources and food.  And yet everyone looks well-fed, not emaciated.  Some of the contestants, in fact, look like body-builders.  In the real world, we've all seen, alas, how hunger twists young, developing bodies.  It doesn't look anything like what is presented in The Hunger Games, or more aptly, The Well-Fed Games.

It's a fact, isn't it, that muscle-mass comes from eating right and vigorous exercise? How are these poor District-ers eating so well, getting so much protein, and working out so frequently under the yoke of The Evil Government?

Either the movie should have cast more appropriately, or the actors and actresses should have fasted a bit before principal photography began.  But if those changes had occurred, The Hunger Games wouldn't be able to show off hot young nubile bodies, and that, finally, is what gets the Twilight crowd into the theater, isn't it?

Does she look hungry?

Does he?

How about him?

Does he look like he's starving to you?

What about these folks?  Skinny, undernourished kids living off the land?

Dystopia can't be built in a day.  For audiences to believe in a corrupt future world, they must understand why it works or why it doesn't.  It needs to be internally-consistent and well-thought out.

We also must understand how the filmmaker's feel about that world, and where that world went wrong.  What was the human quality that transformed paradise into hell? 

The Hunger Games doesn't provide much by way of answers to any of these questions. It eschews social commentary and satire in the very era when we see fame whores on every network station in prime time every night of the week.  And furthermore it suggests -- in an abundantly bogus fashion -- that a person can survive a tournament to the death without committing almost any violence at all. 

In terms of dystopian films, this one wouldn't likely survive the first round with Rollerball or Death Race 2000.  The Hunger Games looks terrific and is fronted by the very appealing Lawrence, but the film doesn't hold up under the slightest intellectual scrutiny.