Jennifer Lawrence onset for The Hunger Games
May the camera be ever in your face.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I can review The Hunger Games. I mean, I saw it last night among friends and a packed theater on a pretty big screen with fairly astounding sound. I watched a movie I thoroughly enjoyed and would have no problem recommending to everyone I know. The Hunger Games is a really good dystopian science fiction action adventure for the whole family that, if incredibly profitable, will lead to at least two more movies adapted from the popular Panem Trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins. It’s a great movie and is well worth the ticket price to see if you can. But it has one problem that I hope somebody else is mentioning. Cos every reviewer on earth is going to talk about all the great things about this movie–and there are a lot of great things.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a coal-miner’s daughter from District 12 of Panem. The world has ended in a nuclear holocaust and now all that is left is the nation of Panem, divided into 12 districts. They go from 1 to 12, richest to poorest, most populous to least. In order to maintain oppressive power, the Capitol forces each of the 12 districts to offer up two Tributes–a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, inclusive. These Tributes fight to the death on live TV throughout the entire nation in an annual contest called Survivor. … I’m kidding, it’s called the Hunger Games. When Katniss volunteers to save her 12 year old sister from being sent to her certain death, she’s sent to the 74th annual Hunger Games alongside Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy she is loath to kill because he saved her life and she’s yet to thank him for it.

Those are the great things–the actors, the script, the costumes, the premise, the concept, the universe, the emotion. There are some alright things, too: music, sound design, world-building outside of costume design. Let no one tell you this movie is bad. It’s a really damn good movie. But if someone tells you this movie is nauseating, ask them to clarify if they mean from the violence (which is kept brutally and mercilessly intact, but mostly offscreen) or from the fact that this is perhaps the worst shot best movie I have seen in years. The ratio of piss-poor cinematography to otherwise quality of this movie is perhaps the highest I have ever seen in my life. I watched this movie on a gigantic screen–the way movies are meant to be seen. But there was not more than five shots in this movie that gave me useful visual information.

I swear on my life, this chaos cinema handheld shaky-cam thing has to stop. People say Cloverfield was the beginning of the end, but I honestly beg to differ. Cloverfield is one of the best, most deliberately shot movies of the 21st century, where every shot is designed to convey the maximum amount of visual, emotional and narrative data. You always know what’s going on in that movie and you always feel stressed out and under assault. Even at times of peace in Hunger Games, the camera was doing its damnedest to make sure we never saw more of any person than an eyebrow. It got so bad that people were asking who the characters were onscreen–not because they were unfamiliar with them, but because they never saw them. I never got a sense of location or scale or size in this movie because it was deliberately shot to obscure any and all of those things from being conveyed.

Go through the movie and ask yourself–quietly and in your head, mind you, don’t ask the person beside you out loud while checking your text messages–how many people are at the reaping? How many people live in District 11 when you see it on screen? What is the general layout of the arena? What is the design of the stage the perfectly-cast Elizabeth Banks is standing on as Effie Trinket? How big is the train car? How does Katniss’ hotel room connect to the rest of the suite? How does her house in District 12 relate spatially to the town square? Is there a fence between her and the outside world, or does she just walk a few miles and start hunting? Based on the first shot, who is Katniss embracing underground just before the Games begin?

There is not a moment in this movie where shooting it conventionally wouldn’t have improved it dramatically. We might lose the close up on Katniss’ lips as she’s drawing back her bow, but we’d be able to tell what the heck she was shooting at. Gary Ross did a good job, but Tom Stern (the cinematographer) was also the director of photography for Gran Torino, and Gran Torino didn’t look like this. Changeling didn’t look like this. The Exorcism of Emily Rose didn’t look like this. I don’t know who to blame in this scenario, but I can say one thing: if Matthew Vaughn had been directing this movie, I would’ve known what the crap was going on.

By no means should you think that I think The Hunger Games is a bad movie. It’s a great movie. It’s a fine movie that I recommend for more reasons than I can count, not least because its protagonist is a smart, capable and wounded young girl who doesn’t need a protector or a fighter to save her. If the preteen girls at my screening need someone to look up to, I’d be far happier that it’s Katniss than some useless coward who sits around letting things happen to her and being sad that her father bought her a car. But its cinematography is no better and may in fact be worse than Battle Los Angeles, and I wish I were exaggerating. THREE STARS

Note: Yeah, the camerawork bumped it down half a star from the 3.5 it deserves. It bugged me that much.