When a book becomes a phenomenon, its film adaptation is all but assured. And though The Hunger Games didn’t hit the ground running as a phenomenon, we’re now at a point where the books are everywhere, and the film is looking at opening to over a hundred million. Thank goodness then that Gary Ross‘s adaptation for the big screen is good – it’s one of the best blockbusters we’ve seen in quite some time. And it’s going to make Jennifer Lawrence into a movie star.

The Players:

The Plot:

In the future, society is kept obedient by the televised Hunger Games, which has as a raffle where each of the twelve district puts up two children to fight to death until only one kid survives. Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) volunteers as a tribute in the place of her younger sister, and so she’s sent to train and fight with fellow district member Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson). Katniss already shows prowess with the bow, but as her coach Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson) tells her, survival isn’t just about being in the game, it’s about making the audience like you.

The Good:

  • Entertaining: Though leisurely paced at nearly two and a half hours, this is a film that moves, and for those only familiar with director Gary Ross’s other credits (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), it’s a surprise to see him nail this. You get to sympathize with Katniss, and understand her situation, and then she’s put in the middle of this terrible battle to see if she can fight but also keep her soul. You’re with her character every step of the way, and Lawrence absolutely nails it.
  • Real Science Fiction: This is an actual science fiction premise that uses a potent metaphor about modern society. It’s easy to see parallels to the Occupy movement, but these notions (explored in science fiction films ranging from Logan’s Run to Battle Royale) are still potent, and it gives the film more to latch onto than just cool action, or melodrama. There’s something under the surface of the film.
  • Jennifer Lawrence: Though it’s been hard to deny her talent ever since she delivered in Winter’s Bone, here the actress has to carry a blockbuster film on her shoulders and does so without breaking a sweat. Lawrence delivers a great nuanced, star-making performance as an action heroine.
  • Josh Hutcherson: Though the actor has gained some traction by being a franchise star by accident (the Journey films), it takes a brave male actor to play second fiddle to a strong leading lady and never try to overcompensate. What’s great is that his character is a weak loser, and he reminded me of Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell.
  • Modern Feminist Icon: Katniss Everdeen moves the cinematic ball forward for female protagonists. Lawrence’s character plays the lead of the film – a role that would normally be played by a man – without ever being reduced to woman-ness, but is never denied her femininity.  Usually when women star in films like this, their sexuality becomes explicit (think Lara Croft) or it’s just simple role reversal. This feels like a first.
  • Supporting Cast: Donald Sutherland is a great heavy, he brings gravitas that never feels one-dimensional, while you’ve got people like Banks, Harrelson, Bentley, Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones doing a lot with small parts. There’s good world building, and though the make-up and look might be a little distracting, future worlds need distinct looks. But where other older films of this nature build on actors giving a wink to the camera, that never happens here, and so you can settle into a world that may look goofy, but never campy.
  • Ambiguity: Some critics aren’t sure of Katniss motivations in the second half. Is she playing to the audience or does she feel something unexpected? I like that viewers might be conflicted about how to read the film. I wasn’t, but what is performance and what isn’t is one of the film’s great pleasures.

The Bad:

  • Cheap CGI: Every once in a while there’s effects work that are completely graceless and noticeable, especially in the first section. They spent the money in the right places, but still.
  • Franchise Building: Liam Hemsworth character is a bigger part of the sequels, but his presence here is basically a marker to denote that he will have more to do in future installments. It’s handled as gracefully as possible, but the film sets him up to be more important to the story than he is. All he gets to do for most of the film is watch things.
  • How the F___ is this PG-13?: The MPAA is such a strange organization, This is a film about watching over twenty kids aged 12-18 being killed, and though the violence is handled tastefully (or blurily, there’s a lot of shaky-cam during the violence) it seems what gets this over is the fact that it’s such a popular franchise. Which marks them as somewhat corrupt.

Overall:

Rare these days is the truly great blockbuster, but such is The Hunger Games, one of the smartest and most entertaining franchise films in a very long time. Great performances and a fascinating story make this a rare treat.

Rating: 8.8/10

The Hunger Games opens March 23. Check it out.

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