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.
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.