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 King has finally been dethroned.
The Ben Stiller/Jennifer Aniston farce Along Came Polly debuted at No. 1 this weekend with $27.6 million*, officially ending The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's four week reign at the top of the box office. Polly is the second biggest January debut since Star Wars: Special Edition, which opened in 1997 with $35.9 million.
After weeks of heavy dramas angling for awards considerations, sometimes all an audience wants is a laugh, Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations told The Associated Press.
"[Ben Stiller] does seem to play this role a lot, but he does it well," Dergarabedian said. "The audience obviously loves Ben Stiller in this type of movie."
Polly also becomes the biggest opening film of all time for the Martin Luther King weekend and, if the estimates hold through Monday, the figures could put this weekend as the fourth best MLK holiday weekend overall. The same weekend in 2001, led by the dance drama Save the Last Dance at $23.4 million, still holds the record as the best MLK weekend at $124.9 million for the top 12 films over four days.
The real race this weekend seemed to be between second, third and fourth places, with a scant $200,000 difference between the three. As of Sunday's estimates, second place belonged to Big Fish at $10.4 million, which nearly came in first last weekend when it first expanded wide. The high-octance Torque revved up in its opening weekend, coming in third with $10.27 million, while The Return of the King slid down to fourth place with $10.2 million. These spots could be adjusted in the final tally, which will be released Tuesday.
The family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen rounded out the Top Five with $8.7 million, while another newcomer, the animated Disney's Teacher's Pet, failed to make the Top 10 in its opening weekend, taking in a piddly $2.4 million.
THE TOP TEN
Universal Pictures' PG-13 rated romantic comedy Along Came Polly debuted at the top of the list with an ESTIMATED $27.6 million in 2,984 theaters. Its $9,249 per theater average was the highest of any film opening wide this weekend.
The story revolves around an insurance risk assessor on the rebound who falls for an avowed risk taker.
Directed by John Hamburg, it stars Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Debra Messing.
Sony's PG-13 rated drama Big Fish held onto second place in its sixth week with an ESTIMATED $10.4 million (-25%) in 2,514 theaters (+108 theaters; $4,137 per theater). Its cume is approximately $37.9 million.
Directed by Tim Burton, it stars Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Lohman.
Warner Bros. PG-13 rated actioner Torque premiered in the third spot with an ESTIMATED $10.27 million in 2,463 theaters and averaging $4,170 per theater.
On the mean streets of Los Angeles, a biker gang member must outrace his enemies if he wants to clear his name and live to ride another day.
Directed by Joseph Kahn, it stars Ice Cube, Martin Henderson, Monet Mazur, Matt Schulze and Jaime Pressly.
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King fell down a few spots to take fourth in its fifth week of release with an ESTIMATED $10.2 million (-28%) at 3,003 theaters (-529 theaters; $3,397 per theater). Its cume is approximately $326.7 million.
Directed by Peter Jackson, it stars Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG rated family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen dropped two notches to fifth place in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $8.7 million (-26%) in 3,025 theaters (-213 theaters; $2,893 per theater). Its cume is approximately $111.9 million.
Directed by Shawn Levy, it stars Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hilary Duff and Tom Welling.
Miramax Films' R rated Civil War drama Cold Mountain slid two places to sixth place in its fourth week of release with an ESTIMATED $7 million (-11%) at 2,802 theaters (+500 theaters, $2,499 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $65 million.
Directed by Anthony Minghella, it stars Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.
Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give followed the trend and dropped two spots to seventh in its sixth week of release with an ESTIMATED $6 million (-22%) at 2,502 theaters (-374 theaters; $2,398 per theater). Its cume is approximately $100.9 million.
Directed by Nancy Meyers, it stars Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Amanda Peet and Frances McDormand.
Miramax's R rated comedy My Baby's Daddy dropped to eighth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $3.6 million (-52%) in 1,446 theaters (-1 theater; $2,527 per theater). The bachelor buddy comedy's cume is $12.3 million.
Directed by Cheryl Dunye, it stars Eddie Griffin, Anthony Anderson and Michael Imperioli.
Warner Bros.' R rated period actioner The Last Samurai stayed in ninth place in its seventh week of release with an ESTIMATED $3.12 million (-31%) in 1,403 theaters (-498 theaters; $2,224 per theater). Its cume is approximately $101.9 million.
Directed by Edward Zwick, it stars Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn and Timothy Spall.
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated British comedy Calendar Girls moved up the list from last week's 12th place to No. 10 in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $3.1 million (-17%) in 967 theaters (+10 theaters; $3,206 per theater). Its cume is approximately $17.2 million.
Directed by Nigel Cole, it stars Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.
Buena Vista's PG rated animated Disney's Teacher's Pet failed to make the Top 10 in its opening weekend, taking in an ESTIMATED $2.4 million in 2,027 theaters with an average of $1,184 per theater.
The film is a quirky animated kid's movie about a dog who dreams of becoming a human boy, and his master, who just wants a dog.
Directed by Timothy Bjorklund, the vocal cast includes Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Shaun Fleming, Debra Jo Rupp, Jerry Stiller and David Ogden Stiers.
This week, the Top 12 films grossed an estimated $95.5 million, up 5 percent from last week's $91 million, but down 3.99 percent from last year's $99.5 million.
Last year, Warner Bros. PG rated comedy Kangaroo Jack opened at No. 1 with $16.5 million in 2,818 theaters with a $7,770 per theater average; Sony's PG-13 rated National Security opened at No. 2 with $14.3 million in 2,729 theaters with a $6,161 per theater; and 20th Century Fox's Just Married fell to third place in its second week with $14.6 million in 2,769 theaters (+3 theaters; $4,974 per theater).