In the hugely anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collin’s novel, Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen, a young woman living in a futuristic world where teens are entered into a kill-or-be-killed contest for the entertainment of their controlling government. Katniss steps up and takes the place of her terrified younger sister, who is randomly selected to enter the barbaric, televised event. With the guidance of a former survivor of the program (Woody Harrelson), Katniss trains to become a lethal predator, learning that survival comes as much from audience approval as it does being a killing machine.
Some have compared this would-be franchise to Twilight and, while this not-bad event film is thankfully superior, it actually does share a few common traits. Like Catherine Hardwicke’s helming of the first Team Edward film, Gary Ross, the talented director of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, is also completely wrong for this material. Co-star Liam Hemsworth is as locker pin-up ready as Taylor Lautner and as utterly empty as a love interest; thankfully, he’s barely in the movie.
This is a mostly flat, unmoving affair that, despite the 142-minute running time, has a world and set of supporting characters that lack clear definition. Fans of the book, of which I am not, will know the details going in but the uninitiated will be left wondering how this high tech world works and about the identities of most of the adult characters.
All of the adult actors give overstated performances and wear what looks like Elton John’s concert wardrobe–even with Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland and an especially awkward Elizabeth Banks in the cast, only Harrelson makes a solid impression.
The plot is a steal from the superior, even more outrageous Battle Royale, the still-controversial 2000 Japanese film with a near-identical plot. There are also story elements on loan from George Orwell’s 1984, Escape from New York, Lord of the Flies and Death Race 2000. Whereas Battle Royale is a shocking satire on how terribly competitive and stressful the Japanese education system is, the point of this movie is anyone’s guess.
The scenes of young teens brutally murdering one another are disturbing enough that the PG-13 rating seems too soft. Ross has many scenes, particularly the violent ones, filmed with a shaky camera meant to obscure the carnage but it makes the rest of the action incomprehensible as well. A big problem that keeps the characters from seeming like real teenagers is that you never get a sense of any fear they might be feeling and their change from exploited victims to blood thirsty killers never comes across.
Lawrence’s captivating performance, and that of her co-star Josh Hutcherson, playing her competitor and ally, keep this from being a total miss. There are some strong scenes, such as the slow, edge of your seat build up to the initial burst of game show violence. The screenplay ironically mirrors the motivations of the show’s programmers, who try to warm up their audience by emphasizing the love story.
The attraction of the main characters comes across, but the especially fake-looking CGI and depressing spectacle of watching teenagers murder each other for sport overwhelms any touchy-feely audience manipulation.
Lawrence’s performance and a few near-radical touches draw you in but the most this has to offer an audience is pre-release hype. Once that dies down, you’re left with a movie only for fans of the book. I brought two Team Katniss fans with me and they explained the many characters and details the film leaves vague. This was helpful but they didn’t, however, make me like the movie.
The Hunger Games
Rated PG13/142 Min.