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 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a few surprises up its sleeve tonight, though for the most part experts predicted the winners accurately.
Gladiator, which many thought was a shoe-in for Best Picture, was. In a more surprising addition, the film's star, Russell Crowe, beat out Golden Globe winner Tom Hanks for the Best Actor award. Gladiator's chief rival for Best Picture, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had to be content with the prize for Best Foreign Language Film as well as several technical awards.
Steven Soderbergh seemed surprised to find himself the proud owner of a new gold statue when he was awarded the Best Director Oscar for Traffic, one of two movies for which he was nominated. A win for Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, the other Soderbergh directing venture, was no surprise in the Best Actress category.
In one of the evening's biggest shockers, Marcia Gay Harden walked away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Pollock, upsetting pundit predictions that newcomer Kate Hudson would take home the statuette. Holding back tears, Harden thanked her co-workers and her family for their support throughout her career.
As expected, Benicio Del Toro took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Traffic. The actor thanked the members of the Academy, and dedicated his Oscar to the people of Nogales, AZ and Nogales, Mexico, two of the cities where the film Traffic was filmed.
Screenplay awards fell out much as anticipated, with Traffic's Stephen Gaghan winning for Best Adapted Screenplay and Cameron Crowe taking home the award for Best Original Screenplay for Almost Famous.
The Oscar for Best Achievement for Costume Design went to Janty Yates for Gladiator, and Goldie Hawn presented the award for the Best Score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon composer Tan Dun. Crouching Tiger's Peter Pau also won for Best Cinematography. The first Oscar awarded this evening, Best Achievement for Art Direction, went to Tim Yip for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "I am really nervous...this is the first time I win an Oscar," Yip said.
Bob Dylan appeared live from Australia, and later accepted the award for Best Song from there as well. His tune "Things Have Changed" is from Wonder Boys.
Several technical awards went out early in the evening; Jon Johnson won for Sound Editing for U-571, and Best Achievement in Visual Effects went to Gladiator. Nominee Kate Hudson presented the award in the Best Makeup category to Rick Baker, a six-time Oscar winner, and Gail Ryan for Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Bob Beemer, Ken Weston and Scott Milan picked up the statue for Best Sound for Gladiator, and that film's John Nelson, Neil Corbould, Tim Burke and Rob Harvey won for Best Visual Effects. Stephen Mirrione won the Oscar for Best Editing for Traffic.
The Short Subject Documentary award went to Tracy Seretean for Big Mama, and the Documentary Feature award went to Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer for Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kinder Transport.
When Quiero Ser" (I Want To Be ...) won the award for Best Short Live Action Film, director Florian Gallenberger greeted his native Mexico and thanked his film school for making his dreams come true.
The Best Animated Short Film nominee category followed with Michael Dudok de Wit's Father and Daughter taking the prize.
The Academy honored director Jack Cardiff with an honorary Academy Award tonight. "For those of us who are 70 years or younger were born, Jack Cardiff was shooting film...and he's still shooting," Dustin Hoffman said. As he accepted his award, Cardiff hugged his statue and said, "This has to be a dream."
Ernest Lehman, screenwriter for such amazing movies as The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly, was given the Lifetime Achievement Award, as was Gladiator producer Dino De Laurentiis.
In other news, Bob Raime, President of the Academy for five and a half years, told viewers and attendees that he was resigning from office.