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.
Although most Holocaust-themed works present the Jews as victims this true story shows there were small bands who did manage to fight back no matter how difficult the challenge. Starting near the beginning of World War II the film focuses on three Jewish brothers who lead a small but effective resistance against the surging Nazi presence in the forests of Belarussia. Eldest brother Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) returns home to find most of his family murdered. His only surviving siblings are his wild quick-tempered brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) prone to shoot first and ask questions later and his youngest brother Asael (Jamie Bell) whose gentle nature allows to him to act as a buffer between his two older siblings. Crux of the film is the conflict between Zus’ quest for revenge at any cost and Tuvia’s more measured desire to save lives. As they round up more and more Jewish outcasts the Bielskis form a community deep in the woods. But soon Tuvia must rise to the occasion and lead the 1 200 strong group deeper into hiding in order to survive the winter and the lurking Nazi threat. Daniel Craig gets back to his acting roots after two high-profile outings as 007. He’s strong resilient and complex as a man with a criminal past whose mettle is tested when he chooses to become an advocate for life over the prospect of turning into a killing machine. Schreiber is superb as well as the toughest of the brothers -- at least on the outside. His primal urge to survive at all costs by using whatever preemptive force is necessary is apparent throughout his well-detailed portrayal. And finally Bell who more than holds his own as the most innocent of the bunch and the one with the most to learn. Alexa Davalos Iben Hjejle and Mia Wasikowska add needed warmth and emotion as the three very different women or “forest wives ” with whom the brothers romantically bond during their years in hiding. Stand out in the enormous meticulously chosen cast is Mark Feuerstein as an intellectual and Viktor Panchenko as Isyyanov the leader of the People’s Army. Edward Zwick is known for intelligent historically based films like Glory The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. Defiance follows suit shot on a rather large scale with lots of impressive action sequences buffering an intimate story. Zwick’s co-writer Clayton Frohman stumbled upon the Bielskis’ story while reading a newspaper obituary on one of them. Armed with exhaustive research and an unerring eye for authenticity the director does not present any of these characters as saints. They were flawed conflicted human beings caught up in a extraordinary situation which only highlights their indomitable determination and fortitude to walk out of that forest alive. James Newton Howard’s brilliant score with haunting violin solos from Joshua Bell deserve special mention among the talented artists who made Defiance come to life. This is a must-see movie and another towering cinematic achievement for Zwick his best since Glory.