Being one of the few people in the United States who hasn’t read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (you can count us on a District 12 coal miner’s hand), I walked into the movie with zero expectations. That’s not to say I wasn’t completely ignorant to the basic story. I knew it was about children forced to fight in a televised death match to make benefit glorious future society. But, I knew I was in the perfect position to rate this film on its own merits.
So, this review is mostly for those who didn’t rush out the first week to see the movie, and let me just say from the outset: holy crap, was I impressed.
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class) stars as Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from the Appalachian coal-mining District 12, who volunteers in the place of her younger sister to participate in the Hunger Games, a death match held by the neo-Roman government of Panem that pits two “tributes” from twelve formerly rebellious districts against each other in a controlled arena.
Although some readers of the novels objected to her casting, Lawrence excels in the role so much that I have difficulty recasting it on my lonesome. She is wonderfully emotive, showing very real fear, particularly in the lead-up to the commencement of the Games. Addressing the criticisms of her body-type, her build actually makes her more believable: 1) for looking like an actual (Hollywood) woman and 2) for being able to actually pull a bowstring, much less hold her own against 23 other contestants in a fight to the death.
Josh Hutcherson (Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Kids Are Alright) plays the male tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark, and while consistently outshined by Lawrence, it is fitting considering that his entire district believes that he’s meat for the grinder. There wasn’t a lot of chemistry between him and Lawrence, which contributes to the sense that Peeta’s affection for Katniss is lopsidedly reciprocated, whether he realizes it or not.
The two leads are supported by a fantastic cast, including Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flint, Natural Born Killers) as a former champion, Haymitch Abernathy, who has retreated into the bottle in response to his time in the pit and his continued presence in the supporting end of the Games.
I was also surprised by the end credits to discover that Elizabeth Banks (Wet Hot American Summer, Zack and Miri Make a Porno) played Effie Trinket, who is almost unrecognizable in Trinket’s ostentatious Capitol makeup and clothes.
Stanley Tucci (Seriously? You don’t know Stanley Tucci?), incapable of a bad performance, eats up every scene as Caesar Flickerman, the blue samurai-coiffed Games announcer who alternates fawning over the pagentry and kills like Scott Hamilton if ice skaters would only pull a Happy Gilmore with their skates. If he does the role any disservice, it is only that he makes the ringleader of this circus so likeable.
Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H, Ordinary People) delivers one of my favorite lines of the movie as President Snow, the dictator of Panem, in response to the adage “Everyone loves an underdog”: “I don’t.” Of course he doesn’t. He’s never been one.
Of the surprise performances, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the fashion designer, was a pleasant one. He performs capably, expressing what appears to be honest sympathy and affection for Kat. This is only his second role as an actor — the first being in Precious — but, I unfortunately haven’t seen it, yet. So, if Kravitz performed as well in that, then I apologize if my praise is overdue.
The other discovery is Alexander Ludwig, playing one of the “career tributes” (the Games’ equivalent to Chinese gymnasts training from age 4) from District 2. He delivers a final monologue that channels Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty “fire off the shoulder of Orion” speech at the end of Blade Runner. He instantly transitions from joyously evil to evil that was never given an alternative. He doesn’t have any future productions listed on his imdb page, but hopefully we’ll see more from him in the future.
As for the set design and costumes, everything is evocative of ancient Rome, but with a sci-fi twist. Centurions are now body armored riot police, tributes are presented to the hungry masses by chariot, and the denizens of the Capitol lighten their faces, only presumably without arsenic.
The only problem with the visuals in this film is the camera work. The cinematography relies heavily on handcams, including the entire first half of the movie. I understand that handcams are shorthand for chaos, but seriously, my stomach should be rolling because children are being drawn for The Most Dangerous Game by lottery, not because of motion sickness. Were the story and acting any less engrossing, I would’ve hopped into another theater to see if John Carter was playing.
Of course, the handcams become disappointingly “necessary” during later depictions of children committing violence. After all, it’s the adaptation of a young adult novel, so the movie needs a PG-13 rating for young adults to attend. But, this raises an ethics question for the MPAA: is depicting children killing each other with gladiuses actually better if it’s blurry? Or if the bodies are found mysteriously mangled? And how is this still PG-13 when Bully gets an R-rating for showing actual kids use the word “fuck?” Chalk another point on the scoreboard for “why we can’t have nice things.”
As stated before, I haven’t read the books, but it seems like the message is a little lost when the violence is edited down from an R rating. (It’s part of what happened to John Carter and will probably happen again to Ender’s Game.) I just wish that children’s entertainment would commit to its themes. If barbarity is bad, then show your work. Show why it’s bad.
(I also advocate showing live childbirth and sex acts in high school sex education. Just framing my decision-making judgment.)
Those were near deal-breakers for me, yet the story and acting more than made up for it. It’s obvious that this will become the next big franchise, so I look forward to seeing the next installments with the expectation that they will improve down the line like the Harry Potter films. Still, this was an excellent start, and I might even check out the books later. Maybe. (Eh, probably not.)