Based on the wildly popular young adult series, The Hunger Games looks to be the natural follow-up to the Twilight franchise for Summit and the studio’s new owners, Lionsgate. But unlike Twilight, which repels male audience members faster than you can say “glittery vampire,” this film actually has a strong female lead character and considerable appeal past the teenage girl demographic. With a solid ensemble cast and an excellent script, The Hunger Games is much more than your standard “young adult” movie – it’s also a clever riff on our celebrity-obsessed culture in a reality TV world.
Director Gary Ross hasn’t directed a movie since Seabiscuit back in 2003, but he didn’t miss a beat here. He swings for the fences and crushes it; everything from the story beats to the character moments work wonderfully together, wrapped in an elaborately conceived world of fantastic production design and flamboyant costumes that lays out this universe in a compelling and convincing way. Nothing distracts from the storytelling, and it gave me that increasingly rare feeling that I was watching something special come together on screen.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young woman forced to grow up too quickly. Essentially raising her younger sister Primrose while their mother drifts through the world after the death of the girls’ father, Katniss spends most of her time hunting in the woods on the outskirts of District 12, the section of the futuristic nation of Panem where her family lives. She hangs out with the studly Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and they talk about the future and getting out of their poor district one day. But when Primrose is chosen as the district’s female tribute in the annual Hunger Games, Katniss saves her sister’s life by volunteering in her place. Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy who’s had a crush on her since they were little, are whisked away to The Capitol to prepare for a battle to the death with the 22 other kids chosen at random from their districts.
It’s a tried-and-true concept that’s been explored on film many times: people kill each other for competition and it’s broadcast to the world through secret cameras. The Running Man, The Condemned, and Death Race all use this story device as a social commentary, and the Japanese film Battle Royale even featured kids as the players. But The Hunger Games is the first film to really explore this territory during the modern age of reality television, turning that microscope around to examine our behavior as a society. “What if everyone just stopped watching?” one character suggests. But they don’t, and neither do we; the parallels couldn’t be any clearer. There are a couple quick glimpses into life on the other side of the screen: the tributes are showered with lavish things, a nod to the way our culture rewards stupidity, and Peeta expresses his hope to keep his individuality, but it’s too late; once he was chosen, his privacy vanished. They make the rounds doing interviews and parade around all dressed up to secure public approval, and cameras document the contestants’ every move once they’re inside the arena. In the world of The Hunger Games, privacy seems to equate to life itself – and even if you survive the competition, the winner remains a permanent celebrity.
The movie doesn’t follow the recent Hollywood trend of being “dark and gritty,” but there’s a certain realism to the way Ross presents this futuristic story. Everything is very matter-of-fact, so much so that even the insane costumes of the people at The Capitol feel natural; the entire movie has this natural vibe like, “of course that should look that way.” Even the digital elements during the Games – when people in a NASA-esque control room conjure fireballs and creatures as obstacles for the tributes – look intuitive and functional. I don’t think there’s a ton of “futurism” in the designs, which add to the drama of the story by making the world these characters live in (and, by extension, the characters themselves) a bit more relatable.
Ross’ direction is clear and concise, and despite the occasionally shaky camera, the film ditches another recent trend by making the action really easy to follow. From the training to the actual games themselves, the movie is exciting and genuinely thrilling, with the only misstep being Katniss’ drawn out reaction to a certain character’s death (THG is a touch longer than it should be, clocking in at 2 hours and 22 minutes). The romance between Katniss and Peeta works pretty well, but because Gale stays behind in District 12, random cutaways to him watching the games feel like forced setup for the forthcoming sequel. He’s practically not a character in this first film – he certainly has no bearing on what’s happening during the fighting – so there’s no justified reason to cut to him. I hope the female fan base appreciates a heroine who isn’t infatuated with a dangerous, unattainable man while chewing on her lip the whole time, but we’ll have to wait for the box office numbers to come back to see if that sentiment holds true.
The cast is excellent, taking a concept that could be scoffed at and fully committing to it. Lawrence embodies Katniss with everything she has, and Hutcherson’s Peeta hits the right balance between strong and emotional. The supporting characters in the story are a little eccentric to say the least, but veteran actors like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and Stanley Tucci are game for the shenanigans and turn in lively performances.
This kind of positive reaction to a film only happens a few times a year for me (if I’m lucky), and even heading into this one hearing a lot of positive buzz, I was shocked with how much I enjoyed it. When this movie was announced, I never would have thought that I’d care about it, let alone want to see more, but I’ve gotta say: bring on the sequels. The Hunger Games is a riveting movie-going experience with energetic action, heartfelt romance, and something interesting to say about our the way we consume entertainment. This one deserves to be seen in theaters, but good luck getting in on opening weekend: some showings have been sold out for weeks already. But, as they say in the film, “may the odds be ever in your favor.” Until next time…