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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
In the late '50s a group of elementary students put futuristic drawings in a time capsule that is then buried on school grounds. One overly obsessed kid Lucinda goes her own way by writing hundreds of mysterious seemingly non-sensical numbers on her entry. Fifty years later it’s dug up and comes into the possession of Caleb the young son of John Koestler a recent widower and astro-physics professor who becomes obsessed with the papers Caleb has brought home from class. He soon discovers the random digits are actually not-so-thinly disguised dates (including 91101 of course) for “future” disasters and there are clearly three of those dates yet to come. Although nobody believes his ramblings about this code for impending doom a nearby plane crash proves he is on to something so ominous the fate of the world could be in jeopardy. With all hell about to break loose the prof takes matters into his own hands.
WHO’S IN IT?
Just a couple of years ago Nicolas Cage starred in Next as a magician who could see into the future and had to prevent a nuclear attack. Now he’s at it again as an MIT professor who also has clues to future catastrophes and also is out to prevent the inevitable. And of course in the National Treasure films he latched on to maps that had contained similarly dark deeply held secrets. Nic clearly likes “knowing” stuff before the rest of us and he’s quite believable even if some of the circumstances in his latest sci-fi adventure are really out there -- literally. Cage somehow makes you buy into this stuff which is key to the ultimate success of the flick. As the key kids Chandler Canterbury as Caleb and Lara Robinson as Lucinda (and later Abby Lucinda’s granddaughter) are properly eerie and haunted-looking. Rose Byrne is also along for the ride as Lucinda’s grown daughter who is able to provide goosebump-inducing information that the numbers alone can’t. There’s also some dead-on creepy emoting from D.G. Maloney as a quietly foreboding stranger who seems to be following Caleb.
Unlike some recent movies of this type with nothing on the agenda but pure mayhem “Knowing” delves into the bigger issues of why we are all here providing something other than just big explosions to talk about on the way home from the multiplex. Director Alex Proyas (I Robot Dark City The Crow) certainly knows how to pull off complex action set-pieces but he and his screenwriters also seem to be genuinely interested in exploring the meaning behind the madness.
Some of the more pedantic dialogue Cage is given can be groan-inducing but since he plays John as a total believer we can forgive it. Also the film falls victim to a final act that veers into typical disaster movie territory and isn’t as compelling as the first two thirds which try to keep the premise at least marginally credible. At two hours it probably could have been tightened anyway.
The rain-soaked plane crash sequence with its gritty hand-held photography is riveting to watch and one of the most frightening depictions of a jetliner disaster put on film yet.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
If you are really squeamish it might be worth "knowing" that you should take breaks in the big disaster sequences as the CGI effects can get pretty violent and graphic particularly for a PG-13 movie.