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The Hunger Games (2012)

DIRECTOR: Gary Ross

CAST:

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones

REVIEW:

The first onscreen installment of the popular book trilogy, The Hunger Games deserves to be viewed and judged on its own merits, not by misleading media comparisons to the Twilight series, which has more to do with trying to drum up the same mania for the new franchise than real similarities between the films.  While both are adaptations of popular book series considered young adult fiction, The Hunger Games is more grown-up and respectable, and has more serious things to say. As opening installments in franchises go, it’s not enthralling on the level of, say, The Fellowship of the Ring, but is more exciting than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and far better-made than Twilight.  The rest of the series should have no problem getting the green light.

 The series is set in an unspecified but seemingly futuristic time in a nation known as Panem.  A dictatorial centralized government rules from The Capitol, surrounded by twelve Districts.  As “punishment” for a past rebellion by the Districts, two citizens between the ages of twelve and eighteen are chosen at random from each District to participate in the annual Hunger Games (so-named because you are given extra rations of food as a reward for repeatedly putting your name in the drawing), where twenty-five teenagers must fight to the death until one champion remains, while, like a high-tech Roman Colosseum audience, the rest of Panem follows their progress using implanted tracking devices and hidden cameras.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the impoverished District 12 with her widowed mother and little sister Primrose, and when Prim’s name is drawn by the flamboyant Capitol representative Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss volunteers herself to spare her sister.  Along with fellow District 12 selection Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is whisked away to The Capitol, where they are given advice about PR and survival by Effie, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and their alcoholic mentor—and former Hunger Games champion—Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).  Initially reluctant, Katniss learns to play the game both onstage and off well enough to become a heroine to the masses, which delights the Games’ on-air announcer (Stanley Tucci), but alarms Panem’s dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who warns his lackey Seneca (Wes Bentley) that “a little hope is useful, a lot of hope is dangerous”, and begins to feel threatened by Katniss’ popularity.  Meanwhile, Haymitch persuades Katniss to play along with a “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet scenario with Peeta to make her more exciting to the masses and gain her sponsors who can help her survive, but she and Peeta develop actual feelings for each other, an unwelcome development for Katniss, since he must die for her to live.

 A case could be made that The Hunger Games merited an R rating, and in fact I strongly suspect it only avoided one by using the tactic of using lots of shaky camera movements and quick cuts to obscure its most brutally violent moments.  Even so, we get glimpses of blood flying, and we see characters (and essentially children, at that) shot with arrows or laying dead.  The books may be beloved by many teenagers and perhaps some pre-teens, but adults considering taking small children to see The Hunger Games should use caution and careful judgment.  The violence may go by in quick glimpses and flashes to get a PG-13 rating, but it’s still there.  There is at least one genuinely affecting character death in which tears may fall (everyone who’s read the book or seen the movie will know what I’m talking about), and the most thrilling Game sequence is the last, as Katniss and Peeta are chased through the woods by huge genetically engineered dog-like beasts.  The stark contrast between the dreary, dirty, impoverished District 12 and the flamboyant vibrance (decadence) of The Capitol, where everyone dons flamboyant wardrobes and hairstyles (Stanley Tucci wears a purple wig and Wes Bentley’s goatee looks like something you’d find on a comic book villain), is also interesting, and Katniss shows her smarts in a scene where she cuts loose a wasp nest to fall on unsuspecting pursuers.  In terms of the basic premise and the social commentary it presents, The Hunger Games‘ closest cousin is probably Stephen King’s The Running Man, and it raises similarly thought-provoking questions about how far away society really is from embracing and enthusiastically tuning in to a “reality show” involving people literally fighting to the death.  The Games’ hosts’ (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones) commentary and banter is amusing, and at times hilarious, but when one considers the context, it’s also a little creepy.  After all, they are enthusiastically commenting on teenagers killing each other as if they are football announcers.

 Jennifer Lawrence, last seen as the young Mystique in X-Men: First Class, proves that her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone , making her the second youngest female Academy Award nominee, was not a fluke.  She’s a serious, grounded young actress and makes Katniss worth an investment of time and attention.  The biggest thing about Katniss is that she’s a normal person, not a superhero.  She’s a teenage girl thrust into a situation and trying to survive, not an action heroine.  Since this is the first installment in a trilogy, it’s no big secret that Katniss survives, but Lawrence doesn’t make this feel like an inevitability.  Josh Hutcherson doesn’t rivet our attention with Lawrence’s intensity, but he has a lower-key earnestness that makes Peeta sympathetic.  We root for them to beat the odds and somehow both make it out alive.  The media has attempted to further draw a Twilight connection by hyping up the Edward vs. Jacob-style “Team Peeta” and “Team Gale” fandom war, but at least in this first outing, Liam Hemsworth (brother of Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) has only a few minutes of screentime, leaving the budding love triangle seeming slanted heavily in Peeta’s favor (though the same was true of Taylor Lautner in the first Twilight). The supporting cast is heavy with familiar faces—Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, and an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks—but the biggest impression is easily Stanley Tucci’s flamboyant host Caesar Flickerman, a deliciously on-target parody of sensationalistic talk show hosts we all know.  It’s not the first time Tucci has been a comic highlight of whatever movie he appears in, and he is easily so here.  In fact, there are occasions when Tucci steals the show. 

 I can’t say I found The Hunger Games as spectacularly enthralling as some of its devotees–Gary Ross is overly fond of the shaky camera style (although this is likely partly motivated by a desire to water down an R rating to a PG-13 that’s more inclusive of the fangirls the studio is courting), and the plot is overly relient on deus ex machina of convenient plot twists bailing our heroine and company out of seemingly impossible situations, as well as sometimes giving Katniss an easy way out rather than forcing our heroine into the truly tough moral choices the concept obviously poses–but it’s enjoyable and entertaining and has a level of social commentary that’s far more thought-provoking than anything in the vapid Twilight series to which it is unfairly (and vaguely insultingly) compared.  Those giving a wide berth to anything mentioned in the same sentence as Twilight should not let the inaccurate comparison deny The Hunger Games a chance.  The two series are nothing alike, but if its fanbase proves as faithful (and if its mainstream success is, as I suspect, wider), The Hunger Games may well be the next mega-popular franchise its supporters are hoping for.  May the odds be ever in its favor.

 ***

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