The Hunger Games
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson & Josh Hutcherson
Directed by Gary Ross
142 min., PG-13
Release date March 23, 2012
Fan of author Suzanne Collins’ smash 2008 novel “The Hunger Games,” the first in a trilogy about a freaky future in which kids are forced into a fight to the death, scarfed down the movie over its box-office-busting, $152 million opening weekend.
Jennifer Lawrence, who generated a buzz last year in “Winter’s Bone,” anchors the action as Katniss Everdeen, the resourceful 16-year-old heroine who uses her Appalachian woodland skills to compete in the games, a perverse combination of TV reality show, gladiatorial match, popularity contest and survival-of-the-fittest kill-fest.
Woody Harrelson is Haymitch Abernathy, a former games “victor” now serving as mentor to new competitors. Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley put their acting stamps onto other characters central to the story. Rocker Lenny Kravitz appears as Cinna, a stylist who primps contestants for their parade of frenzied public appearances that precede the games.
Looking ahead to a second movie and beyond, the film also sets up the framework for a romantic triangle between Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy from her district who’s also chosen to compete, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her guy pal from back home.
Like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” the two book-to-movie franchise high-water marks to which it will be measured, “The Hunger Games” serves young audiences a potent cocktail of teen spirit, fantasy, oppression and suppression, and a looming specter of death that snuffs out young lives too soon. But far beyond anything offered by those two movies, Lawrence is a strong role model for young girls with her character’s traits of sacrifice, courage, moral grounding in a world that’s lost its own, and a fierce will to fight for what’s right, even if it means bucking the system, sacrificing her own life, or sparking a revolution.
But while everything may be seasoned to taste for many of the 23.5 million people who made Collins’ books bestsellers, it doesn’t quite measure up to an epic feast, especially for viewers without a love connection to its literary roots. Director Gary Ross seems to have trouble finding the right tone to meld the saga’s media satire and blood-curdling sci-fi shudders. The production values are serviceable, but rarely anything above pedestrian. The camera work, dominated by extreme close-ups and shaky hand-held shots, is often hard on the eyeballs. The sets and special effects look cheap, sometimes even cheesy.
And there’s something troubling about a movie asking audiences to cheer for a young character, a child, really, whose survival depends on other children being slaughtered—even in a “tasteful,” PG-13 kind of way. An edgier movie, in stronger hands, could have (and perhaps should have) drilled down much deeper, and harder, into the troubling, brave-new-world nightmare of that horrifyingly dysfunctional futuristic scenario—and what it says about our modern-day appetite for destruction.
But it’s pointless to be too picky about the meal when “The Hunger Games” is the hottest dish to come out of the kitchen in months, if not years, and people can’t seem to get enough. The games have begun, and there’s more to come. If you don’t care to join in the feast and festivities, well, at least now you know what all the gobbling is about.
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