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.
Top Story: Paris Hilton Videotape Leaked
Paris Hilton, heir to the Hilton hotel fortune and star of Fox's upcoming reality series The Simple Life, is trying to stop the distribution of a homemade video that reportedly features her having sex with Rick Solomon, who went on to marry former Charmed star Shannen Doherty in 2002. Hilton's spokesperson Siri Garber told The Associated Press the tape was made three years ago while Solomon and Hilton were dating. "Not everybody indulges in that, but couples do it sometimes and it's just for themselves, for fun. She never intended for it to be seen by anybody other than the two of them," Garber said. An unidentified person reportedly distributed the video to some gossip columnists and Hilton's lawyers are trying to determine whether Solomon, 33, was involved in releasing the tape. Solomon, who owns a clothing and DVD company that distributes amateur party videos of scantily clad women, has supposedly split with Doherty but the status of their relationship is unclear, the AP reports.
LAPD Fires Celeb-Tracking Officer
The Los Angeles Police Department has fired a police officer who used department computers to review confidential records on celebrities, including Halle Berry, Jennifer Aniston and Dylan McDermott, the AP reports. Officer Kelly Chrisman, who was fired Oct. 27, said his superiors assigned him to look up the information as part of a project to map celebrity homes to help monitor potential stalkers, but the LAPD says no such project existed. Investigators say they do not know what Chrisman, 35, did with the information he accessed between 1994 and 2000.
Critics of Gibson's Passion Harassed
Two scholars who have criticized Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ said Thursday they have received hate mail in response to their comments. According to the AP, Sister Mary Boys, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Paula Fredriksen, a Boston University professor, have received hateful e-mails from Gibson supporters. The women made the comments at a panel discussion about the film, which centers on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, at a national meeting of the Anti-Defamation League. The Passion of Christ is set for release Feb. 25.
Fox Releases Alien Quadrilogy
Twentieth Century Fox announced it will release Alien Quadrilogy, a boxed set of all four of director Ridley's Scott's Alien installments, on Dec. 2. According to Variety, the 9-disc set, priced at $99.98, contains the theatrical editions of all four movies in the series, including the theatrical version of Aliens, which has never been released on DVD before. Extras include nearly 45 hours of bonus features, directors' cuts of three of the movies and a restored "pre-release" version of Alien3. Double-disc DVD sets of each film will be sold separately beginning Jan. 6 for $26.98 each.
CBS Sings Hilary Duff
CBS has signed a comedy pilot deal with 16-year-old Lizzie McGuire star Hilary Duff and will develop a starring vehicle for the young actress for the 2004-05 season, Reuters reports. Disney's Lizzie McGuire wrapped production in July 2002 but Duff and her representatives had a public falling-out with the Mouse House after the two sides could not come to terms over a proposed sequel to The Lizzie McGuire Movie. CBS views signing Duff, who starts a national concert tour later this month to support her solo debut album, Metamorphosis, as an opportunity to cater to younger viewers.
VH-1 Updating Partridge Family
Music cabler VH-1 is planning an updated version of the 1970s sitcom The Partridge Family, which ran on ABC from 1970-74. According to The Hollywood Reporter Sony Pictures Television, which holds rights to the show about a musical family, will produce a reality series for VH-1 chronicling the casting of the family as well as a scripted half-hour pilot featuring the winners. No production date has been set, but the network is aiming to make it a tentpole of its 2004 schedule.
Timberlake Wins Big at MTV Europe Awards
Justin Timberlake was the big winner Thursday night at the MTV Europe Awards, walking away with three top prizes, including best male, best pop and best album for his debut album Justified. Christina Aguilera, who hosted the awards ceremony, was named best female artist. Other winners included Jamaican dancehall reggae sensation Sean Paul, who was named best new act of the year, and Beyoncé, who took the best R&B award, while MTV viewers voted her single "Crazy in Love" best song of the year.
Role Call: Jackson, Arquette, Hershey, Christensen Set for King Thriller
Jonathan Jackson, David Arquette, Barbara Hershey and Erika Christensen have been set to star in Riding the Bullet, an adaptation of the Stephen King e-book, for writer/director Mick Garris, Variety reports. Set on Halloween in 1969, the supernatural thriller follows a 21-year-old New England college student (Jackson), who attempts suicide after his girlfriend (Christensen) breaks up with him. But when he learns that his mother (Hershey) has had a stroke, he hitchhikes through rural Maine to visit her bedside, and is picked up by a mysterious driver (Arquette).