10:24 AM EDT, March 20, 2012
The hypocrisy at the heart of "The Hunger Games" is irresistible. Novelist Suzanne Collins, whose trilogy has been decreed "awesome" by, among others, my 5th grade son, indicts violence and organized brutality as tools of mass-audience manipulation. Yet "The Hunger Games" wouldn't have gotten very far without its steady supply of threatened or actual gladiatorial teen-on-teen bloodshed: death by arrow, javelin, genetically engineered wasp, plus knives. And land mines. And fearsome dogs, conjured by the dogs of the totalitarian state.
In hypocrisy, however, one can find some pretty sharp entertainment. "The Hunger Games" was made for the screen, and for franchise glory. I've read only the first of the three books (scheduled to be turned into four films), but Collins' first book, all pace and incident, cries out "Film me! Film me!" on every dread-filled, straighter-than-straightforward page.
Director and co-adapter Gary Ross, whose two previous features were the comic fantasy "Pleasantville" (1998) and the rosy Depression-era underhorse saga "Seabiscuit" (2003), turned out to be a smart match for the material. He does not pump the action for cheap thrills or opportunities to stoke the audience's blood lust. Even the score by James Newton Howard, reminding us, subtly, that the key characters come from the land formerly known as Appalachia, shows a kind of mournful restraint in framing the action.
The movie earns its PG-13 rating. But it earns it honestly. The killings in "The Hunger Games" mean something in emotional terms, and are meant to have a cumulative emotional effect on the crafty, stoical heroine, Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence. The young actress received an Oscar nomination for her work in "Winter's Bone," and her performance here is no less fierce and purposeful. I'd say she carries the movie, except she's not the only good thing about it.
Time: a century or so from now. North America is now called Panem. The nation is ruled by an elegant despot played by Donald Sutherland, which means stock in sinister line readings is at an all-time high.
In the land's 12 remaining and miserably neglected districts, life among the starving 99-percenters is harsh enough to make"Metropolis" look like a staycation. As part of totalitarian rule, bread and circuses division, two children from each district, between the ages of 12 and 18 (prime age range for Young Adult literature!), must compete each year as "tributes," to the death, in the annual Hunger Games.
The games are televised. Akin to "The Truman Show," the game's designer (Wes Bentley) contrives to keep things hopping inside the near-limitless confines of a massive, topographically diverse arena. Viewing of the games is mandatory throughout Panem. The play-by-play color commentary comes from a couple of weaselly Restoration-era foplike characters played by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones. (Nothing in "The Hunger Games" is more frightening than Tucci's smile.)
Volunteering her services when her younger sister is picked for the games, Katniss represents District 12 along with a baker's son, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Whisked to the Capitol by superfast train, these two train together under the boozy tutelage of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who along with the frilly Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), coaches the teenagers in the value of gaining sponsors, and of pulling a viewing audience's strings.
"The Hunger Games" compiles so many teen fantasies and nightmares, it's hard to keep track of them all. The burden of sudden, unwanted celebrity collides with the difficulty, as we know from the "Twilight" films, of a young woman torn between two fellers, in this case Peeta and the village hunk back in District 12, Katniss' hunting companion Gale, played by Liam Hemsworth. In the "Twilight" franchise, the heroine carved out plenty of time to mope and brood en route to the most fraught sexual initiation imaginable. "The Hunger Games" has other things on its mind, namely raw survival, in the vein of "The Most Dangerous Game."
When Chris Columbus filmed the first "Harry Potter" book, his job was to get the big ball rolling and shoe-horn in a decent percentage of J.K. Rowling's wealth of detail. With "The Hunger Games" the task was different; Ross and his fellow adapters Collins and Billy Ray really didn't have a whole lot to cut. When I heard the film was nearly two and a half hours long, I thought: Is there really a two-and-a-half-hour movie in that book? But there is. The film feels dramatically substantial but not inflated. A lot of it — the core of it, really — puts us on the ground, running, in the woods with Katniss, without much in the way of digital effects.
Ross shoots far too much in hand-held close-ups. (It works for the violence, but less well for simple dialogue sequences.) The editing rhythm often pushes the film past urgency and into chaos. But there's a human pulse to this blockbuster in the making. Lawrence has a face born for the movies. It's not standard-issue, praise be. She doesn't grab the screen like a performer whose mission is to become a movie star. Rather, she acts. Naturally.
The games have begun, and so far they're pretty gripping.
'The Hunger Games' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images — all involving teens)
Running time: 2:22
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