In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The film centers on yet another over-achieving career woman Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) who is beautiful stylish and successful but can’t find the right man to save her life. You know the type. She would have given up by now if it weren’t for her three close girlfriends (Wendy Raquel Robinson Taraji P. Henson Golden Brooks) who exact a fair amount of peer pressure to keep her in the game. Kenya finally agrees to go on a blind date with Brian Kelly (Simon Baker) a sexy landscape architect who turns out to be not exactly what she'd pictured for herself. You know because she’s an uptight black woman and he’s a free-spirited white man. And there's our conflict. Should Kenya stay the straight and narrow path or follow her heart--no matter where it takes her? That’s a rhetorical question of course. Lathan has had a nice steady career making likable urban romantic comedies (Love and Basketball Brown Sugar) so she fits easily into Something New’s milieu. As Kenya the actress is effectively professional and whip-smart at work but also does a nice job playing up the character’s insecurities in her personal life. By being so very high maintenance one wonders why the almost-too-good-to-be-true Brian would even fall for her. But that’s what Something New has going for it--Baker (The Ring Two) and Lathan make their connection seem palpable and genuine. The movie really steams up when these two are on screen together. As for the rest they add flavor wherever necessary especially Donald Faison (TV’s Scrubs) as Kenya’s womanizing brother and Alfre Woodard who does a surprising turn as Kenya’s materialistic snobbish mother. Written directed and produced by women of color Something New wants to make a statement about the pressures professional women--in this case black women--have trying to find love and commitment in their lives. Successful producer Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow) and screenwriter Kriss Turner were both inspired by an article they read in the Detroit Free Press about how 42.4 percent of black women have never been married which then lead them to the idea that if you’re in your 30s and single are you going to open things up and look outside your race? This delicate subject matter in Something New’s is skillfully handled by first-time director Sanaa Hamri who adequately shows the fine line. But despite its sweet temperament the film ultimately lapses into ordinary and predictable rom-com fare. After all you got to have the Hollywood ending right?