Get a reality check on 'Hunger Games' tech

Posted: March 21, 2012 at 5:41 am

Murray Close / Lionsgate / Everett Collection

Peacekeepers escort Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in a scene from "The Hunger Games."

By Alan Boyle

The technological divide between the rulers and the ruled is at the heart of "The Hunger Games": While the good guys struggle to survive, the bad guys employ fictional gee-whiz technologies inspired by real-life frontiers. And just as in real life, technology gets tripped up by unintended consequences.

That's not to say the post-apocalyptic North America of the book series and the much-anticipated movie, opening Friday, is anything close to real life. On one level, the technologies used by the villainous government of the nation known as Panem, ranging from force fields to extreme genetic engineering, serve as science-fiction plot devices and special effects. But on another level, the contrast between bows and arrows on one side, and death-dealing hovercraft on the other, accentuates the saga's David vs. Goliath angle or, in this case, Katniss vs. the Capitol.

Here are a few of the technological trends that provide the twists in "The Hunger Games," along with real-world analogs:

What? No cellphones? Much has been made of the fact that the starving, downtrodden residents of Panem's districts don't seem to have access to cellphones or the Internet. Instead, they have to huddle around giant television sets to find out what their overlords in the Capitol want them to see. But if you think of Panem as a fictional tweak of modern-day North Korea, "The Hunger Games" might not be that far off the mark: You've got a leadership capable of long-range missile launches, exercising virtually total control over what its impoverished populace sees and hears. Cellphones were outlawed until 2008, and even today they're confiscated from international visitors upon arrival. Internet access and international calling are limited to the elite.

The outlook for change is mixed: Today, a million North Koreans are said to be using mobile phones, but the State Department's Alec Ross told the Korea Times during a recent visit to Seoul that "it will be very difficult for technology to drive change in North Korea, given the extreme measures that North Korea has taken to create a media blackout." That's life in Panem ... er, Pyongyang.

Genetic engineering The most vivid special effects are connected to genetic engineering of various organisms, including humanized animals. To minimize the plot-spoiler effect, the only "muttation" I'll mention in detail is the mockingjay, which figures so prominently in the advance publicity and provides the title for the third book in Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy. The geniuses at the Panem high command created genetically modified birds known as jabberjays that were able to listen in on rebel conversations and report them back to the authorities. When the rebels caught onto this, they started feeding the jays false information. And when the Capitol figured this out, they left the jabberjays to fend for themselves. Male jabberjays mated with female mockingbirds, resulting in birds that could learn and repeat musical notes but not human speech.

The twist illustrates a time-honored movie maxim about genetic engineering, enunciated in the first "Jurassic Park" film: "Life will not be contained." That may be putting it too simply, but the field has certainly raised a lot of questions about how to keep genetic genies in the bottle. This month, more than 100 groups issued a call to hold back on synthetic biology until new guidelines are drawn up.

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Get a reality check on 'Hunger Games' tech

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