Directed by Gary Ross
Distributed by Lionsgate Films
On March 23rd Lionsgate is poised to blow a certain pop culture juggernaut of a franchise about sparkly vampires away with The Hunger Games, the feverishly anticipated feature film adaptation of the first in Suzanne Collins’ teen-book trilogy centered around a strong-willed teenager named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who must fight to the death against 23 other teens in order to survive.
Set in a post-apocalyptic United States (now called Panem) where the problems of maintaining civil order and keeping the masses entertained by the boob tube all boil down to the same solution: The Hunger Games, a yearly contest where two dozen randomly selected 12- to-18-year-old Tributes are picked during the ‘Reaping’ of all 12 Districts outside of the Capitol.
The Hunger Games starts off quietly enough, but director Gary Ross packs in a gut-wrench moment right off the bat to engage viewers into this cruel world of the film’s heroine when 16-year-old Katniss’ 12-year-old sister, Prim (Willow Shield), is plucked from the unlucky fish bowl for the 74th Games. A shell-shocked Katniss volunteers to take her place, and she’s soon off to the Capitol with one of her flamboyant handlers, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and her fellow Tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who also happens to harbor a longtime crush on Katniss.
It’s a starkly bold opener that acts as a complete juxtaposition to the world Katniss is about to be thrown into, and Ross makes the transition seamlessly; once arriving in the Capitol, the sometimes socially awkward Katniss must embrace this odd and weirdly colorful world that wants to make a celebrity out of her before watching her die, but as she keeps resisting this new world, she soon realizes that if she wants to survive, she must play along with the lunacy that is The Hunger Games.
In the lead up to its release, The Hunger Games has been compared to Twilight, the Harry Potter franchise and even Battle Royale, which is understandable since it’s human nature to compare something new to something old in order to drive home a point; however, it’s unfair to attach all that baggage so early to the film since it absolutely has its own merits to stand by, and frankly, associating it with something like Twilight is a detriment to the work of the entire cast and crew.
For those of you who may be looking at The Hunger Games as the next huge action series, don’t get ahead of yourself just yet; while the film is thoroughly enjoyable and immensely exciting, that’s not what is driving Ross’ vision here. The story deals with themes of self-sacrifice, mortality and rebellion, making The Hunger Games more thought-provoking than jaw-dropping really. Sure, there are great moments of violence and shock, but that’s not what keeps you glued to your seat at the end of the day- it’s the vision and the story, and for both Ross absolutely nails it here.
Ross approaches his action sequences and the narrative scenes in between with a realistic and grounded approach, making The Hunger Games feel like more of a drama than something super-stylized like The Running Man, which allows audiences to be continually immersed in this bleak future.
Performance-wise everyone in this eclectic hodge-podge of a cast delivers solid performances. The brunt of the heavy lifting on The Hunger Games falls squarely on Lawrence’s shoulders, and simply put, she’s brilliant, and fans of the book series should no doubt be pleased with her performance as Katniss. Hutcherson (who seems to be popping up everywhere these days and for good reason) is an interesting character that, honestly, isn’t all that likable at all. But by the third act Hutcherson gets you to come around to his side, making Peeta one of the more interesting and compelling characters to follow.
But even the youngest actors, the aforementioned Shields and Amandla Stenberg, who plays the lovable Rue, could easily have been the weak links given their relative inexperience in comparison to their co-stars like Banks, Woody Harrelson or Donald Sutherland; but both are terrific. It’s also nice to see Wes Bentley involved since the poor guy hasn’t been given a decent role in almost 12 years now, and Lenny Kravitz (not exactly someone I look forward to in movies) reels in all the flashiness of his own persona and makes Cinna a warm and likable character in a world that is anything but.
And while it was incredibly easy to get swept up in the world of The Hunger Games, that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t suffer from a few problems- first and foremost being visual effects work that still feels unfinished (hopefully for the sequel they can nip that problem straightaway) and an oddly paced last 20 minutes that feels a bit underwhelming and rushed.
There is also a romantic subplot going on within The Hunger Games that felt a little odd to me (as someone who hasn’t read the books, I really have no frame of reference)- we get a sense from early on that Katniss and close confidante Gale (Liam Hemsworth) truly share a special bond, but once Katniss catches wind that Peeta has been harboring a long-standing crush on her, she begins to act wildly against the character established earlier on. At first she’s violent and enraged at him, and despite the fact that she isn’t wholly sure she can trust Peeta during the Games themselves (there’s a spoiler moment I wouldn’t dare reveal for those who haven’t read the books), she suddenly gets all warm and fuzzy for him.
Sure, I get that she’s a teenage girl and that teenage girls never act rationally, but still… there’s a weird sort of awkwardness between Katniss and Peeta in the film’s final act which left me feeling a little cold at the end and almost negated all her character worked so hard for throughout the rest of the film.
But with all that being said, who really cares? It’s like nitpicking at your Christmas presents, and what’s the fun of that? With a compelling story that actually has something to say for itself (a welcome change in the world of blockbuster filmmaking) and an entire cast delivering engaging and star-making performances (in Lawrence’s case) that sell everything perfectly, The Hunger Games looks poised to usher in a brand new hit franchise and deserves all the credit it gets for its confrontational subject matter and dystopian sensibilities, all masterfully helmed by Ross.
While the gorehounds out there might lament over how minimally the blood and violence play out, for teen/young adult audiences films don’t get much darker or more intelligent than The Hunger Games. Don’t let all the Twilight comparisons fool you- THIS is the way to make engaging youth-oriented stories for audiences of all ages (much like Chronicle did just a few weeks back).
4 out of 5