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.
Making an earnest cinematic argument for the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife without delving into mushy sentimentality is a difficult task for even the most gifted and “serious” of filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson discovered as much last year when his sappy grandiose adaptation of the ethereal bestseller The Lovely Bones opened to scathing reviews. Critics by and large tend to bristle at movie renderings of what may or may not await them in that Great Arthouse in the Sky.
And yet filmmakers seem determined to keep trying. The latest to make the attempt is Clint Eastwood who throughout his celebrated directorial career has certainly demonstrated a firm grasp of the death part of the equation. His filmography with a few notable exceptions practically revels in it: of his recent oeuvre Invictus is the only work that doesn’t deal with mortality in some significant manner. With his new film Hereafter Eastwood hopes to add immortality to his thematic resume.
The film's narrative centers on three characters each of whom has intimate experience with death and loss. Their stories in true Eastwood fashion can ostensibly be labeled Sad Sadder and Saddest: Marie (Cecile de France) is a French TV news anchor who’s haunted by disturbing flashbacks after she loses consciousness — and briefly her life — during a natural disaster; George (Matt Damon looking credibly schlubby) is a former psychic whose skills as a medium are so potent (the slightest touch from another human being triggers an instant powerful psychic connection a la Rogue from X-Men) they’ve left him isolated and alone; Marcus is a London schoolboy who retreats into a somber shell after losing his twin brother in a tragic car accident (both brothers are played rather impressibly by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren).
Humanity offers little help to these troubled souls surrounding them with skeptics charlatans users and deadbeats none of whom are particularly helpful with crises of an existential nature. Luckily there are otherworldly options. Peter Morgan's script assumes psychics out-of-body experiences and other such phenomena to be real and legitimate but in a non-denominational Coast-to-Coast AM kind of way. Unlike Jackson’s syrupy CGI-drenched glimpses of the afterlife Eastwood’s visions of the Other Side are vague and eery — dark fuzzy silhouettes of the departed set against a white background. Only Damon’s character George seems capable of drawing meaning from them which is why he’s constantly sought out by grief-stricken folks desperate to make contact with loved ones who’ve recently passed on. He’s John Edward only real (and not a douche).
Marie and Marcus appear destined to find him as well but only as the last stop on wearisome circuitous and often heartbreaking spiritual journeys that together with George’s hapless pursuit of a more temporal connection (psychic ability it turns out can be a wicked cock-blocker) consume the bulk of Hereafter’s running time. We know the three characters’ paths must inevitably intersect but Morgan’s script stubbornly forestalls this eventuality testing our patience for nearly two ponderous and maudlin hours and ultimately building up expectations for a climax Eastwood can’t deliver at least not without sacrificing any hope of credulity.
It should be noted that Hereafter features a handful of genuinely touching moments thanks in great part to the film's tremendous cast. And its finale is refreshingly upbeat. Unfortunately it also feels forced and terribly unsatisfying. Eastwood an established master of all things tragic and forlorn struggles mightily to mount a happy ending. (Which in my opinion is much more challenging than a sad or ambiguous one.) After prompting us to seriously ponder life’s ultimate question Eastwood’s final answer seems to be: Don’t worry about it.