The Hunger Games
Release Date: March 23, 2012
Director: Gary Ross
Writers: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Thanks to strong word of mouth and a massive ad campaign, The Hunger Games is poised to be the first true blockbuster of the season. Much has been made about how this film could be the “next Twilight.”
And there are certainly similarities to be found between the two franchises. Both are based on a series of sci-fi young adult novels with a female protagonist. And both have that protagonist in a love triangle. But there are two key differences between the two. One, unlike Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a warrior woman, not some damsel-in-distress in constant need of saving. And two, unlike the Twilight movies, this film is actually well written, well acted and consistently entertaining.
The story takes places in a dystopian future in the nation of Panem, which has 12 outlying districts. Those rural districts once attempted a rebellion against the capitol, which ultimately failed. So, as punishment, every year each district has two teenagers (one male and one female) selected at random to compete in a televised survival competition called The Hunger Games. One of these “tributes” emerges victorious and is showered with fame and fortune. The other 23 are killed as a sobering reminder to the outlying regions to never get out of line again.
Katniss comes from the coal mining district, District 12. Her father died years ago in a mining accident and her grief-stricken mother shut down afterwards, leaving Katniss to care for her sister Primrose (Willow Shields). When Primrose’s name is selected as tribute for District 12, Katniss offers to take her place, becoming the first person in her region to ever volunteer for the games. Along with her, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is chosen to represent District 12.
Before competing in the games, the two are taken to the capital city for their training. It’s a huge culture shock. The inhabitants of the outlying districts are kept fenced in in their regions, unable to visit the lavish capital. The rural distric dwellers wear drab clothes and live in humble houses, working blue collar jobs to provide raw materials for Panem. But the capital city is an opulent, colorful place where men have bizarrely-trimmed beards, people wear far too much mascara and everyone looks like they are dressed for a florescent Tim Burton costume convention.
The games are primarily a means of keeping the districts in line, but they are also a source of entertainment for the land. The tributes aren’t just thrown together into battle. They spend weeks training, consulting with stylists and doing televised interviews with the blue haired, smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). It isn’t just about strength or survival skills. The producers of the show are looking to get the audience emotionally invested in the tributes. If you win over the crowd, you can earn sponsors who will pay to have supplies airlifted to you during the competition.
That’s what makes the pairing of Katniss and Peeta so interesting. In terms of pure toughness and skill, Katniss is a clear favorite to win. She’s tough as nails and deadly accurate with a bow. But she’s not good at connecting with the audience and winning over sponsors. Peeta, on the other hand, is not much of a fighter, but he’s a natural in front of a camera, which quickly makes him a fan favorite. He tells the audience in an interview with Flickerman that he’s in love with Katniss, which could be genuine emotion or simply a reason to get the crowd behind them both.
Each group is also given their own mentor, who has previously won the Hunger Games. Their mentor is Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic initially more concerned with scoring free food and free booze than actually offering up any useful advice. Harrelson, as always, gives a charismatic and memorable performance.
In fact, the film boasts many wonderful performances. Lawrence is quite good as Katniss. She’s believable in the action sequences and gives the character the emotional weight needed to get audiences to connect with her struggles. Tucci has a lot of fun bringing Flickerman to life. Lenny Kravitz is surprisingly good as Cinna, District 12’s personal sylist. And Elizabeth Banks is wonderful as the overly proper, overly made up and annoyingly chipper Effie Trinket.
While the film has a great cast and a compelling story, it isn’t without its problems. For one thing, director Gary Ross is overly fond of the extreme close up, shaky handheld camera work that has become much too prevalent in modern films. Directors think it conveys intensity and drama, but it always just makes the action difficult to follow and leaves the viewer feeling nauseated. Also, it has some pacing problems and tends to drag in certain spots, particularly toward the end of the film.
Still, none of these problems are enough to derail this entertaining film. Despite a few rough spots and a runtime that feels a little long, The Hunger Games is a solidly entertaining film. I’d recommend that you go see it this weekend, but due to all of the hype surrounding this one, chances are you already ordered your tickets in advance weeks ago.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.