If you are of the mind that “The Hunger Games” is nothing more than the latest fodder for love-struck teenage girls, you couldn’t be more wrong.
If you are of the mind that “The Hunger Games” is nothing more than the latest fodder for love-struck teenage girls, you couldn’t be more wrong. This stirring entertainment is about as far from “Twilight” as you can get. It’s more like the dawn of a genre fluidly melding old-fashioned romanticism with intelligent social commentary.
Yes, it has a love triangle similar to “Twilight,” but that’s only a miniscule portion of a movie unafraid to stalk bigger game. Whether it is our nation’s chronic disparity in wealth, or America’s perverse fascination with reality TV, “The Hunger Games” is, for the most part, dead-on in its satirical indictments of our lemming-like culture.
Set in the not-to-distant future, Part 1 of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular trilogy of young adult novels vividly portrays a soulless society of Stepford Wife drones enslaved by a Big Brother government that has thoroughly convinced them that what seems bad is really good. That, of course, includes the Hunger Games, an annual event in which 24 of the nation’s brightest and fittest teenagers square off in a nationally televised death match in which the last man (or woman) standing wins a five-year recording contract with Simon Cowell.
Just kidding about Simon Cowell, but the rest of the Hunger Games looks eerily like “American Idol,” from its diminutive, overbearing host (hilariously played by Stanley Tucci, sporting towering indigo tresses), to the dream-bursting humiliations thrust upon its contestants, to the behind-the-scene manipulations guaranteed to make “reality” more dramatic. And seldom do the gullible viewers question the validity of what they are being sold. They cheer when the “villains” die, and weep when their favorites meet a shocking end. Then they go to bed.
This is supposed to be America after the apocalypse, but one could argue that, except for the made-for-TV murders, what the story calls Panem is really a mirror of an American citizenry more concerned with who wins “Idol” than who wins the White House. And few question why some, like Panem’s despot, President Snow (a requisitely snowy white Donald Sutherland), live like a king while the peons live in depressed burghs straight out of a Dickens novel.
One of those paupers, though, is about to begin what could be an Arab Spring of sorts when she volunteers to represent her “district” in the 74th annual Hunger Games. Mind you, the tomboyish Katniss Everdeen (a sensational Jennifer Lawrence) doesn’t set out to save the world; she merely wants to save her younger sister.
In an interview, Sutherland compared Katniss to Joan of Arc, and he couldn’t be more correct in his analogy. Both are teenagers and both are tenacious in their fight for what they believe is just. And both are saintly in their valor and compassion. You’d follow them anywhere; which is exactly what we do with Katniss, who, thanks to Lawrence, entices us from the moment we first spy her – trusty bow and arrow in hand – hunting a deer in the forest.
Page 2 of 3 - Not only does Lawrence mesmerize, she also single-handedly carries the movie during its clunky beginning in which characters are rapidly – and vapidly – introduced. We also get a quick tour around her economically depressed coal town, featuring scenes that look like they were culled directly from Lawrence’s breakout flick, 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” Then, just when you feel your eyelids beginning to droop, up pops Elizabeth Banks dressed in the garish wig and fashions that instantly identify her as the sleazy, but colorful Effie Trinket, the escort for the two “Tributes” who will represent District 12 in the upcoming Hunger Games. When she arrives on Reaping Day to draw the names of the “lucky” contestants (a boy and a girl), the film suddenly takes on a deliciously over-the-top “Wizard of Oz” vibe that only grows stronger when Katniss and her male counterpart from District 12, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), arrive in the gleaming metropolis of Capitol, where they instantly get makeovers similar to those Dorothy and her pals received when they entered Emerald City. That feeling of infectious eccentricity grows even stronger with the addition of Woody Harrelson as the hard-drinking Haymitch, a former Hunger Games champ called in to prepare Katniss and Peeta for the contest, and a surprisingly good Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, their personal stylist.
If there is a complaint, it’s that it takes more than hour to get to what we most want to see, which is the actual “game.” And when it does arrive, it’s every bit as tense and exciting as you’d expect it to be, as Katniss is forced to deal with a succession of morality – and mortality – issues in front of a national viewing audience. Still, you wish director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “Pleasantville”), who co-wrote the script with Collins and Billy Ray, wasn’t so sheepish about depicting the violence.
I know he had to keep it soft to ensure that the film received a commercially friendly PG-13 rating, but the various fights to the death feel much too tame and underdeveloped; ditto for the love triangle between Peeta, Katniss and her hunky boyfriend back home, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Frankly, both Hutcherson and Hemsworth are duds, neither of whom sets off anything close to sparks opposite Lawrence, who, if you ask me, needs no male to complete her. She’s fine all on her own, making Katniss a heroine every bit as strong, fearless and compelling as the patron saint of badass females, Lisbeth Salander.
She’s sure to satiate the heartiest appetite; thus rendering the imaginative futuristic sets created by Philip Messina and the evocative cinematography by Tom Stern as merely dessert for a flick guaranteed to leave “Twilight” in the dusk.
THE HUNGER GAMES (PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images.) Cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanely Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz and Liam Hemsworth. 3 stars out of 4.
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