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.
Caroline (Hudson) is a hospice nurse who goes from one terminally ill patient to another. The Devereauxs--stroke victim Ben (John Hurt) and his supposedly caring but overprotective wife Violet (Gena Rowlands)--are her next case. It all starts off innocently enough with Caroline seeing Ben's misfortune as a means to pay for her nursing school tuition. But once she arrives at the foreboding house a manse set on a bayou in the boondocks surrounding New Orleans (as if N'awlins isn't inherently spooky enough we have to contend with the city's desolate outskirts?) it's clear that this place comes with history. Seems the former owners' black servants used to practice "hoodoo"--a local folk magic--way back when in the attic and were strung up for it. Now their spirits could still be up there. So when Caroline hears noises emanating from above the (conveniently) curious houseguest investigates. Ben too seems spooked. Despite being deemed bedridden by Mrs. Devereaux he's escaping out of windows. Caroline believes someone--or something--may be tormenting him (you think?) and she searches for the answer which may or may not be lurking in the attic.
How The Skeleton Key does at the box office is pretty important for Hudson. Coming off her stellar Oscar-nominated turn as the groupie with a soul in Almost Famous the young actress hasn't been able to pull off the same magic since. Each of her last three films --Alex & Emma Le Divorce and Raising Helen--have been under-performers. So she needs Skeleton to work and thankfully as the doggedly inquisitive Caroline she holds up her end of the deal. Hudson refreshingly doesn't scream or over-emote like so many horror heroines have done before her--but her cutesy demeanor does rear its pretty head on occasion. Oh well can't win them all. Film veteran Rowlands puts on a fine show as the matriarch with something malevolent brewing behind the fading Southern belle routine. And poor John Hurt who is relegated to being tormented one way or the other as Ben. You can't help but feel badly for his character whose plight takes on a cartoonish form at times made even worse by the fact the esteemed actor has virtually no coherent dialogue throughout the film. And then there's the indie darling Peter Sarsgaard who plays the Devereauxs hands-on lawyer who's maybe a little too hands on. Although his screen time is limited he still adds a nice element to the proceedings.
Director Iain Softley's films up to and including this point are as disparate as can be: the underrated Beatles dramatization Backbeat; Hackers computer-lovers' cult favorite that gave Angelina Jolie her first big role; the critically acclaimed period drama The Wings of the Dove; and finally 2001's other-worldly K-PAX. Now with Skeleton Key it's ghost stories and Softley makes a critical decision not to reveal any sort of monster. The decision to only hint at something wicked without showing it in a summer full of the same tired gory special effects is a gutsy choice that pays off for the most part. It unequivocally leaves room for the audience to use their imagination--and Softley wants our collective imagination to run rampant. But even with this technique the scare factor still seems to be lacking. It's only at the very end do we feel any tangible danger--and that's a long time to wait.