28 March 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games."
Does anyone else find it really weird that "The Hunger Games" is the book and movie that has captured the imagination of so many readers and viewers, young and old alike?

Playing like a cross between "The Running Man," "Lord of the Flies" and "The Truman Show," the movie tells a brutal, bloody story. You can talk about its themes of government control and how we glorify violence, but what it comes down to is teenagers killing each other, sometimes with their bare hands.

For a scene in which up to a dozen kids die in a matter of seconds, Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") employs a handheld camera and quick cutting, never lingering on the horrific acts and minimizing the blood on the screen.

I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

On one hand, Ross refuses to fetishize the violence in the manner of the movie's future society, which annually selects 12 teenage boys and 12 teenage girls at random to fight to the death as televised entertainment called the Hunger Games.

At the same time, there is an argument to be made that the movie glosses over the fact that children are killing children.

You cannot fault the participants in these "games," though, as it's kill or be killed, and there can be only one winner.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for "Winter's Bone"), who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister (Willow Shields) after she's chosen in the lottery.

The script, by Ross, Suzanne Collins (author of the bestselling novel on which it is based) and Billy Ray, bombards us with information throughout the movie's first half, yet a strong forward momentum keeps the action from bogging down.

The actors serve as exposition machines more than fully formed characters, though a handful break through and give winning performances: Lawrence as the indomitable yet vulnerable Katniss; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, a former Hunger Games winner, now a drunk and mentor to Katniss; and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the stylist who helps Katniss charm the public in the build-up to the games.

The action picks up in the movie's second half, when the 24 contestants are unleashed to do battle in a wilderness manipulated by the people running the games. What's that? Katniss is moving too far away from the action? A raging forest fire will force her back in the desired direction. The rules can change at any moment, too, so it's just as artificial as any of today's "reality" TV.

Since this is the first of a trilogy (the movie adaptation of the second book, "Catching Fire," is scheduled for release next year), we can be fairly certain Katniss will survive. But that knowledge does not lessen the suspense or intensity of the action. (Knowing the outcome of Ross's "Seabiscuit," a true story, didn't hinder that movie either. The director obviously knows how to tell a story.)

I have not read the books, so I don't know what is to come. But the movie does a more-than-adequate job of introducing a future world and characters I won't mind revisiting. And it gives you a little to think about while you're waiting.

Greg’s Grade: B

(Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images--all involving teens. 142 minutes.)

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