Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth
The Hunger Games (2012)
Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Liam Hemsworth and Donald Sutherland

Like Harry Potter and Twilight before it, The Hunger Games struck a raw nerve with teens around the world. Like its predecessors, it flew off bookshelves -- and all despite lacking a supernatural element like wizards or vampires as a selling point.

Author Suzanne Collins set her trilogy in a dystopian future where one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each of the 12 districts in the nation of Panem are forced into a fight to the death -- literally, with only one left standing. The purpose? To prevent future rebellions and uprisings against the government by keeping younger generations in line. It's Battle Royale and Stephen King's The Long Walk for the tween set. It's premise is arguably darker than the other two recent teen book series combined and, for the film adaptations to do justice to the world Collins created, they would have to translate that dark subject matter onto the screen.

Does the first installment succeed? Mostly.

Director Gary Ross opts for a documentary-style technique that gives the film a more naturalistic atmosphere. You feel as though you are right behind 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she embarks on her violent mission. Whether he's panning over the war-ravaged lands of District 12 or coming in for tight close-ups of frightened young faces, Ross succeeds in translating the atmosphere of fear and paranoia in a heavily policed state.

The first half of the film is especially gripping to watch -- whether you've read the novels or not, the slow revelation of life in Panem is thrillingly revealed. I found myself more intrigued by Katniss' rigid Games training and her life with her mother, younger sister and close friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) than with anything that happened in the latter half. Ross and his crew managed to convey their way of life with very little description.

It's unlikely that anyone could have filled to role of Katniss as capably as Lawrence. The Oscar-nominated actress gives a mature performance, perfectly balancing her character's head-strong resilience and resourcefulness in the face of danger while subtly revealing Katniss' inner vulnerabilities. It's a casting coup for Ross and his team and she more than capably carries the weight of the film on her shoulders.

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence
For the most part, the rest of the cast fares just as well as Lawrence, specifically Stanley Tucci as outlandish talk show host Caesar Flickerman and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss' trainer and a former survivour (winner?) of The Hunger Games.

A few of the other supporting characters fare less well in underwritten roles. There's little to be said of Seneca (Wes Bentley), the curiously bearded overseer of the Games, or the equally strange Effie (Elizabeth Banks). The rest of the ensemble cast is rounded out by Donald Sutherland as the ill-intentioned President Snow and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, Katniss' fellow District 12 tribute.

What holds the film back is Ross' apparent reluctance to take the premise all the way and truly run with the concept. Granted, film censorship would have slapped the film with a higher rating had there been more violence and mature themes; however, it's a gamble that likely would have still paid off due to the popularity of the series. Instead the second half of the film drags for stretches, slowly the action down to a near standstill at points.

The Hunger Games could have benefited more from being just as dark, dangerous and daring as Collins' novels. But, with the wonderful Lawrence in the lead role, this series has staying power.