How well does this movie accomplish what it sets out to do? That’s the primary question that propels my writing each review. In cinematically adapting the first of Suzanne Collins’s young adult novels, the answer is superbly.
In a dystopian future, a post-apocalyptic country called Panem, which was once North America, is divided into 12 districts. As annual penance for an anti-government uprising 74 years earlier, each district holds a ‘reaping’ in which a teenage girl and boy are selected to participate as Tributes in a televised, high-tech sacrificial slaughter known as the Hunger Games in which only one competitor survives.
When her terrified younger sister is chosen, 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) impulsively volunteers to take her place, representing impoverished, coal-mining District 12, presumably Appalachia, along with the baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). En route to the garish, candy-colored Capitol, they meet their mentor, drunken, dissolute Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former victor. After a brief indoctrination, grueling evaluation and sycophantic beauty pageant-like interviews, the pubescent gladiators are released into a wilderness compound, where the brutal carnage commences. Combatants connive and, occasionally, cluster into groups but scrappy Katniss, a skilled archer, is determined to outwit and outlast the others while maintaining her integrity and humanity.
Collaboratively created by Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray and director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”), it’s an intense cautionary tale and visceral fable about ideological rebellions against totalitarianism. It’s also an acerbic indictment of our voyeuristic obsession with reality television, like “Survivor.” What’s also clear is that Panem’s affluent citizens are desensitized to the Tributes’ trauma and pain during the gruesome spectacle. But the obvious emotional undercurrents involving secondary characters aren’t fully explored. Plus, it’s bizarrely edited and too often photographed with a ‘shaky cam,’ like a docu-drama.
As gutsy, self-contained Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) is compelling, smarmily supported by Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hunger Games” devours a humongous 9. It’s tension-filled action-adventure, delivering a pulse-pounding, pop culture message of female empowerment.