Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

Director: Gary Ross

****

Early on in The Hunger Games, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is told by her close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) “You’re stronger than they are. They just want a good show, that’s all they want […] Show them how good you are.” He may as well be talking about the film he’s in. The Hunger Games has been pitched as the next big teen franchise after Harry Potter and Twilight. Compared to most of the movies in either franchise, The Hunger Games is stronger. It delivers the good show the audience demands, and it isn’t afraid to show off its superior credentials.

As heroines go, they don’t come much more aspirational than Katniss. A born survivor, Katniss resides in the 12th district of Panem, a futuristic North American terrain that exists after the collapse of the USA. Living in poor conditions and forced to hunt, Katniss’ skills with a bow and arrow, coupled with a grit borne out of desperation, make her a formidable presence. One could imagine this capable and gutsy young woman being descended from Lawrence’s character Ree in Winter’s Bone; in a role that plays to her strengths, Lawrence is perfect casting. The first hour sees the districts select their teenage nominees to travel to the Capitol for the death match tournament called the Hunger Games, an eerie blend of reality TV show and method of subjugation for the rebellious districts. Katniss volunteers to represent district 12 to save her sister (Willow Shields) from being chosen. Along with her goes Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and they venture to their likely deaths. Of twenty-four selected competitors, only one can survive. It’s a grim idea, and The Hunger Games doesn’t shy away from the darkness. We’re essentially watching teens kill each other for glory and our entertainment, which is exactly the point. The Hunger Games is an intelligent little flick, touching on ideas of racism, poverty, exploitation of young people and violence in the media. With all those ideas and the strong heroine at its heart, The Hunger Games blows other teen fantasy franchises out of the water on smarts alone.

The Hunger Games is a thrilling and brutal affair, and director Gary Ross embraces the brutality with handheld cameras and sudden bursts of violence. The future world is well-realized but it’s the forest setting of the actual ‘Games’ where most of the action takes place and where our focus lies. The second and third acts up the pace and the ante and Ross, with co-writers Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins (adapting her novel), rarely lets us relax. When we’re not on edge or on the run, there’s a lot of compelling character-work here; the young competitors are fleshed out enough for them to be distinct, mostly thanks to some good young actors. Much of the supporting roles allow some big names to enjoy themselves in ridiculous costumes. Of note are Stanley Tucci’s blue-rinsed TV host Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks as camp-as-Christmas escort Effie Trinkett and Woody Harrelson as former Hunger Games champ and trainer Abernathy. If nothing else, The Hunger Games reminds us that Donald Sutherland (as the President of Panem) is awesome and that Wes Bentley (as TV producer Crane) still exists.

Niggles about the so-so CGI or chopped plots from the book are minimal. In an age where teen heroes are either whiny and needy or have magic powers at their disposal, The Hunger Games is admirably down and dirty, with an ability to appeal to all demographics (John Carter, take note). Before the neurologial vacuum of summer season threatens our theatres, it might be a good idea to feast on the Hunger.

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