The Hunger Games (2012)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 4/7/12
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Willow Shields, Amandla Stenberg, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland

In a dystopian future, an annual event called "The Hunger Games" takes place which requires a boy and a girl from each of the twelve districts to fight to the death in a televised spectacle. The sacrifice of the so-called "tributes" is rationalized to preserve order and serve as a reminder for past transgressions against the capital, but it's really just a political show of force and a sick form of entertainment. Tributes are chosen by lottery, and for the 74th annual game, 12-year old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected from District 12. However, her older sister Katniss (fiery Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place in order to save her, and that's where the story really begins. Adding angst to the mix is Katniss's secret admirer Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is chosen as the male tribute. And so these two ill-fated teens are whisked off to the capital city to train for two weeks before being sent to their certain doom in the arena. But Katniss is no ordinary woman, and her keen hunting sense, smart survival skills, and proficiency with a bow and arrow may give her the necessary edge to win the tournament.

Director Gary Ross has done an admirable job with the material, and I applaud him for keeping the tone appropriately serious and grim. Most teen fiction falls in a no man's land of being too adult for younger audiences and too juvenile for adult audiences, but "The Hunger Games" doesn't pull any punches and delivers a mature experience that respects both the audience and the characters. Jennifer Lawrence gives a superb performance as Katniss, embracing both an athletic tomboyish charm and a sophisticated ladylike grace. She's perpetually angry, which gives her an excellent edge and rounds her out as an extremely believable and likable character. Peeta, on the other hand, is a pathetic loser who forms the third point of a love triangle with Katniss and Gale (hunky Liam Hemsworth). His character is so easy to sympathize and identify with, that I was immediately sickened by him. Clearly, I still have some unresolved adolescent issues kicking around in my closet. The romantic angle is awkward and uncomfortable, but necessary for the story to work. Fortunately, it's handled delicately enough to not be completely groan worthy. Willow Shields gives a wonderfully emotional performance as Katniss's sister, whose fear and helplessness defines and drives Katniss's maternal strength and resolve. An adorable Amandla Stenberg (who was equally enchanting in "Colombiana" (2011) ), provides the strongest emotional hook in the film as Rue from District 11, and her time spent with Katniss is heartbreaking.

The film is well made and looks really good for the most part, but heavy film grain is noticeable in some of the darker scenes. The film also features some of the worst nausea-inducing camera work I've seen since "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007), and looks as if it were shot by a staggering drunkard. Inexcusable and uncalled for. It gets a bit better once the action begins, but the combat scenes are horribly shot and irresponsibly edited. I suppose that was the easiest way to secure a family friendly rating. Given the controversial theme of "children killing children", there will inevitably be comparisons to the vastly superior "Battle Royale" (2000). What I find most interesting is that "Battle Royale" was initially banned in America for exploring this theme, while twelve years later "The Hunger Games" is considered mainstream family entertainment. That makes an interesting commentary on society and our changing views towards youth violence. Overall, "The Hunger Games" is an engaging and entertaining sci-fi action film with a lead who is strong enough to carry it across the finish line. Unfortunately, it's an extremely slow starter and the plodding pace can make it very tedious to watch. Things finally get interesting towards the end, and the film closes with a sinister sense of dread for what's coming next. Liongate claimed to be on the fence about making any sequels until they saw how this film performed, but given its staggering success, I have no doubt that Katniss will be back in theaters very soon.

Most perplexing credit: "Snake Wranglers." To the best of my knowledge, I don't recall seeing any snakes in the film. Maybe they were responsible for removing any snakes that showed up on location.