Once upon a time, evil mastermind Suzanne Collins pit “Lord of the Flies,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Truman Show” and “Survivor” against each other and forced them to fight to the death. Several brutal bloodbaths later, “The Hunger Games” emerged, garnering the attention of critics and fans alike.
This dystopian sci-fi adventure takes place in a land called Panem – what’s left of North America after years of war and carnage. Society is now divided into twelve districts, governed by an ambiguously powerful group of individuals who reside in the nation’s wealthy Capitol. Each year, the Capitol holds “The Hunger Games,” where two members from each district are selected at random to fight in a televised free-for-all until one lucky young man or woman is left standing. What’s the point of the Hunger Games, you ask? The answer lies somewhere between “Let’s have a brutal moment of silence to remind us of the past,” “Let’s also remind citizens they should stay in check,” and “Wow, those Capitol freaks are, like, really, really messed up.”
So, our protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is justifiably concerned when her younger sister is selected as District 12’s female tribute to the games. Out of protection, Katniss does not hesitate to volunteer herself, taking her sister’s place. Shortly thereafter, Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), District 12’s male tribute, are shipped off to the Capitol to begin training. They receive some help from Haymitch Albernathy (Woody Harrelson), a rough-around-the-edges drunk who was victorious in his own hunger game years before. And they meet the quiet, mysterious President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), whose baritone voice is clearly masking some dark secrets.
After the brief spell of luxury and celebrity treatment in the Capitol, it’s on to the battlegrounds where Katniss is faced with not only her fellow competitors, but a wide array of booby-traps, unexpected twists in the rules and unrelenting terrain. Let the games begin.
Before I go any further, I should note I have not read Collins’ novel. There will, of course, always be differences of opinion in those who are familiar with the source material and those who aren’t. I should also note I actively avoided the buzz surrounding the series. Given the “Hunger” hype-machine started shortly after the “Twilight” young-adult book-to-film uproar exploded, I expected the same rabid fandom accompanied by overwhelming praise from such fans. And so, I confess, I was negative and irritated with such franchises.
I tried my best to purge this negativity, go in fresh, and give the film a fair chance. And much to my shock, surprise and pride-damaging avail, I found that I quite enjoyed “The Hunger Games.”
Director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) entered the action foray with a bewildering degree of finesse. It’s an astonishing feat when any film with a near two-and-a-half hour running time is paced so briskly we rarely find ourselves feeling any drag, especially considering the games portion doesn’t even begin until the halfway point. And once the games do begin, Ross is smart to not go all Michael Bay on the action, grounding the camera and editing in brutal, restrained realism to wonderful effect. Some have characterized Ross’ style as perfectly suited for the first half, but too lazy in the second. I disagree with this criticism. Most action films today display such flashy, over-stylized camerawork and editing the eye doesn’t have any geometric point of reference for anything on the screen. Ross proves that action-adventure can still be riveting even when you can tell what’s going on.
There’s something to be said about the casting here, too. I can’t imagine any young actress attacking the Katniss role with as much gusto as Jennifer Lawrence. Woody Harrelson is, as always, enigmatically entertaining. Stanley Tucci makes a wonderful Caesar Flickerman, the eccentric host for the games. The always charming Elizabeth Banks does a wonderful impression of Lady Gaga as Effie Trinket. Lenny Kravitz, (since when is he acting in anything other than Target commercials) fulfills his role as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, just fine. Although my mind couldn’t help silently giggling in evoking Derek Zoolander after each of Kravitz’ lines: “Thank you, Lenny!”
While the film exceeded my expectations tremendously, it’s not by any means a flawless run. The filmmakers could have done with a bit more expansion of the world and structure of Panem, especially for the non-oriented audience. I also found my suspension of disbelief reaching critical max at several points. There are a slew of “Really?” moments throughout the film, where characters are set up as crafty or brutal as they come and make unbelievably stupid decisions. For example, some gamesmen spend about five seconds firing arrows within inches of a trapped Katniss and then give up for virtually no reason. Really? Emotional stake for the audience is at a pervasive low throughout the entire film.
These critiques aren’t to say the movie doesn’t work, because it ultimately does. The thrilling pace, foreboding tone and awe-inspiring atmosphere outweigh the film’s shortcomings. I understand many critics, especially “Battle Royale” purists, are continuing to lambast both the book and the film for its lack of originality. They’re right about that. We’ve certainly seen all the parts that make up the whole of “The Hunger Games” in other fashions. The question is whether or not it’s fair to completely dismiss a cinematic experience solely because it feels familiar. For some, the answer is yes. For me, it all depends on how well the film uses its inspiration and sources to create an enjoyable, somewhat fresh experience. Quentin Tarantino made it his life’s work to source multitudes of existing material, throw the chunks into a blender and hit “liquefy.” And we love him.
As much as I wanted to hate “The Hunger Games” for this very notion, I had to lay down my sword upon seeing the film. I know that nuts, M&Ms, and dried fruit have been around for a long time, but my taste buds found this dystopian trail mix to be surprisingly delicious.
There may not be much below the surface, but “The Hunger Games” succeeds as thrilling entertainment, and my critique and praise are one in the same: It left me wanting more.
Tyler Hiott is an independent filmmaker from Frisco, TX. He currently resides in Austin and is head writer for the film review organization "Significance and Cinema." You can read more of his reviews at www.significanceandcinema.com.