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.
January 31, 2002 5:51am EST
A group of high school seniors put a boy who is eager to become part of their clique through a cruel initiation prank that involves jumping off some sort of high scaffolding into a cloudy pool at a local cement factory. When one of them Landon (Shane West) gets caught the principal decides Landon needs to hang with a different crowd and assigns him to tutor kids on the weekend and take part in the drama club's spring play. Surprise-the plan works! In over his head with the play Landon seeks help from Jamie (Mandy Moore) a dowdy bible-thumper who apparently only owns one ratty cardigan. Jamie however is not your run-of-the-mill unpopular girl. Rather than being introverted and weird she is smart witty and confident-in fact that grubby sweater of hers seems to be the only thing branding her as an outcast. The two grow closer and Landon eventually sees her inner beauty forgoing his own A-list status to be with her. But Landon learns that Jamie has been keeping a secret from him that inevitably blocks their path to happiness.
Moore the underdog of the teen pop stars dyes her hair brown and dulls herself down for the role of Jamie a simple girl that loves to gaze at the stars in her spare time. She did a great job transforming herself into her character but in the process extinguished most of what makes her sparkle on screen. Mind you the script might be to blame for creating a character so unbelievably mundane and one-dimensional. Under all of Jamie's goodness and perfection is well nothing. West does a great job portraying his character transformation. Even while Landon runs with the bad crowd West conveys a sense of humility in the character. Peter Coyote plays Reverend Sullivan Jamie's over-protective father without being too overbearing which is refreshing. An almost unrecognizable and weathered Daryl Hannah has a small but convincing enough role as Landon's mother. Maybe it was her now-brunette hair but I didn't realize it was Hannah until I saw the credits.
In A Walk to Remember director Adam Shankman steered away from being overly sentimental. The relationship that develops between the teens is actually very sweet and interestingly enough the film ends up being more about Landon's transformation than about Jamie's faith. While the film is not as flaky as the rash of recent teen movies it still manages to fall into the same clichés. Though the story is very-dare I say-poignant characters like Jamie's in trying to be different have become a stereotype: The plain Jane whose personality and convictions win over the popular guy. Remember Andie (Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink? Or more recently Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) in She's All That? And though Moore has a beautiful melodic voice her singing scenes are too drawn out. We are not just treated to her crooning a chorus or two of a song during a church scene but the songs in their entirety. Even Mariah Carey spared us that much in Glitter.