Relax, you legions of Hunger Gamers. We have a winner. Hollywood didn't screw up the film version of Suzanne Collins' young-adult bestseller about a survival-of-the-fittest reality show that sends home all its teen contestants, save the victor, in body bags. The screen Hunger Games radiates a hot, jumpy energy that's irresistible. It has epic spectacle, yearning romance, suspense that won't quit and a shining star in Jennifer Lawrence, who gives us a female warrior worth cheering.
That's more than you can say for the castration job that the suits did on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight franchise. I'll admit that Games isn't the scary, eruptive firecracker of my dark, Tarantino-fueled imagination. And if you're among the 26 million who devoured the Collins trilogy – The Hunger Games followed by Catching Fire and Mockingjay – you know it could have been. But even wearing a PG-13 harness to ensure profitability, The Hunger Games gets your pulse racing. It's about something pertinent, the mission to define yourself in a world that's spinning off its moral axis.
As 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the renegade hunter who kills with a bow and arrow and stands up to take the place of her younger sister in the deadly Games, Lawrence reveals a physical and emotional grace that's astonishing. Give her the deed, because she owns this movie. It's not just that Katniss makes Twilight's Bella Swan look like the wimp she is, it's that Lawrence, 21, is an acting dynamo with the skills to let us into Katniss' searching mind. Last year, Lawrence won an Oscar nomination for playing an Ozark girl in Winter's Bone. She's just as affecting this time, lending primal force to this dystopian fable of a society out of sync with human values.
At 142 minutes, The Hunger Games can go from rushed to draggy. But director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) hits the high spots, using action to define character instead of obliterate it. He wisely brought in Collins to collaborate on the script he wrote with Billy Ray (Shattered Glass). That way, even when the book's events are condensed or characters eliminated, the feeling stays true.
The Games are a punishment invented by the Capitol of Panem (read: North America) for the 12 districts whose rebellion against Capitol rule was crushed more than 74 years ago. The attitude of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, wily in his evil) is "You screwed us, so we'll screw you." Every year on Reaping Day, a boy and a girl (ages 12 to 18) from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a televised gladiator event devised by head Games-maker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Ratings are not a problem. Even in downtrodden District 12, where Katniss hunts for scraps to feed her sister and her widowed mother, viewing the Games is mandatory. You won't need your arm twisted to see the movie, artfully shot by Tom Stern (Mystic River) as the scene shifts from the perverse lushness of the Capitol to the stark landscape of the battle zone. And did I mention makeovers? All the Tributes (that's what contenders are called) get them. Katniss has fashion genius Cinna (Lenny Kravitz doing a fun spin on Tom Ford) to create a wow dress that bursts into flame at the hem. Nice one.
Like Bella before her, Katniss is pursued by two laddies-in-waiting, in this case Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), the strapping District 12 hunk and fellow illegal hunter she leaves behind, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's son who joins Katniss in the Games and secretly pines for her. Are you Team Gale or Team Peeta? You might not care as much, since neither has the exotic allure of a vampire or a wolf. But Hemsworth (The Last Song, with girlfriend Miley Cyrus) quickly establishes a strong, appealing presence. And Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) brings humor and a bruised heart to a boy who needs to mature fast.
Dynamite actors dot the film. Stanley Tucci is a brilliant blend of mirth and malice as Caesar Flickerman, a TV host who reps the dark side of Ryan Seacrest in this lethal version of American Idol. Elizabeth Banks brings malicious wit to the bewigged and powdered PR guru Effie Trinket. "May the odds be ever in your favor," announces Effie with inane sincerity. And the reliably stellar Woody Harrelson cuts deep as the perpetually shitfaced Haymitch Abernathy, a former victor in the Games now acting as mentor to both Katniss and Peeta. When he's not falling-down drunk, Haymitch instructs his protégés on how to suck up to sponsors who send supplies into the arena when a Tribute wins audience favor. So-called reality TV is given a sharp, satirical kick as Tributes learn to play and pander to hidden cameras. Is Katniss really falling for Peeta as she nurses his wounds, or is she faking it to save her ass and his? Discuss.
Sadly, the erotic heat that Collins generates between Katniss and Peeta in a hidden cave never rises above room temperature onscreen. Hand-to-hand combat does fuel the intensity as Katniss fights career Tributes trained to go medieval on enemy ass. Check out machete-wielding Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and knife-throwing Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), not to mention a swarm of deadly, genetically engineered wasps called Tracker Jackers. The caring bond Katniss forms with Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the youngest Tribute, is just a brief break from the assaults aimed to make Katniss trade her soul for survival.
For all its compromises, The Hunger Games is a zeitgeist movie that captures the spirit of a soul-sucking age in which ego easily trumps common cause. Ironically, the kill-to-win ethos that dominates movies from 1987's prophetic The Running Man to the undiluted brutality of Japan's Battle Royale in 2000, may find its largest viewership in The Hunger Games. But will mainstream audiences respond to the moral challenge churning under the pop-culture razzle-dazzle? It's anybody's guess. My advice is to keep your eyes on Lawrence, who turns the movie into a victory by presenting a heroine propelled by principle instead of hooking up with the cutest boy. That's what makes Katniss revolutionary. May the odds be ever in her favor.
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