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?
Rather than going to the well for another X-Men sequel Hugh Jackman’s mutant Wolverine has been spun off into an uneven prequel that tries to explain the character’s origins but somehow misses what we liked about him in the first place. X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens with a flashback to 150 years ago which unveils the relationship between Logan and Victor mutant half-brothers who are forced to run away from home after Logan murders their biological father. After several scenes depicting the brothers’ service in various wars the story settles in around the 1970s where both Victor and Logan are recruited by the devious William Stryker to serve in a mutant army. But Logan spurns Stryker after taking part in a massacre in East Africa and chooses instead to settle down with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox in the Canadian Rockies. Six years later Victor now Sabretooth shows up and kills her. Logan now Wolverine seeks revenge reluctantly making a deal with Stryker in order to become indestructible. Unfortunately he is double-crossed and uncovers a Stryker/Sabretooth plot to kidnap mutants and use them for no good. He escapes and the chase is on as he tries to stop them — and anyone else in his way — before his memory is erased.
WHO’S IN IT?
It’s the buffed-up Jackman’s show all the way as Wolverine graduates to star status — and that’s exactly the problem. It turns out a little of this guy goes a long way especially when he’s presented in as humorless and unimaginative a manner as the deadly serious approach taken by Hugh (who also co-produced). Jackman acquits himself nicely in the numerous action scenes but fails to make a lasting human connection for Wolverine and the audience. Liev Schreiber is good as Sabretooth but plays it mostly on one note. His three fight scenes opposite Jackman are well-choreographed but become tiring. Danny Huston makes a fine heavy as the evil Stryker while Lynn Collins is lovely as Silverfox adding a nice touch of emotion to this mostly stoic CGI-fest. A promising new group of mutants are also introduced but unfortunately aren't given much to do. Standouts are Ryan Reynolds as the smart-talking Wade Wilson aka Deadpool; rapper will.i.am as John Wraith; and Kevin Durand as the humungous Fred J. Dukes aka The Blob. Durand is especially impressive in a boxing gym scene. Conversely Lost’s Dominic Monaghan receives too little screen time in the role of Bradley.
Wolverine’s CGI effects are predictably top-notch and a couple of big action set pieces are visually arresting including a motorcycle/helicopter chase that may lack credibility but is at least fun to watch.
Lighten up Wolvie. Jackman and everyone else seem to be taking this stuff way too seriously. The humanity that was a hallmark of the previous X-Men films also is largely AWOL and the picture takes a long time to get going. We’re at the 40-minute mark before the claws really start to come out and the psychological mumbo-jumbo stops.
In the lab Stryker promises to make a revenge-seeking Wolverine indestructible but his double-crossing antics only serve to unleash severe rage inspiring great balls of mutant fury as the furious mutant makes his great escape — sans clothing.
WHY YOU SHOULD SIT THROUGH SEVEN MINUTES OF END CREDITS?
For those who think the movie effectively ends when the credits roll here is a “heads up” to hang around.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Since reportedly about 100 000 people downloaded a rough cut when Wolverine was illegally pirated a few weeks ago why not help out poor 20th Century Fox and see it the legal way on the big screen? It’s a big improvement over your iMac.