Over the last two weeks, The Hunger Games has got a lot of press. Forging an astounding $250 million box office take in less than two weeks, The Hunger Games has become a scintillating property. With money like that and a rabid fan base, one could see The Hunger Games making a run at a Best Picture nomination. But let’s save that conversation for the fall. In the meantime, much of the film’s goodwill takes body blows from the fans and plot points of another book and film combination: Battle Royale. Sure, elements of the source material, and subsequently the film, mimic the nature of Battle Royale, but there’s something here worth visiting. The most distinguishable feature is our lead, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman whose physical presence fails to overshadow her mental dexterity and emotional resolve. Katniss’ impact is immediately felt when we’re introduced to a ritual that pits teenagers against one another in a makeshift battlefield. With the nation’s meek and “traitorous” poor divided into twelve distinct districts, two teenagers (aged 12-18) from each district are randomly selected to participate in the barbaric event known as The Hunger Games. The annual game is held in various locations and under the watchful eye of producers whose only goal is to suppress the districts and adhere to frothing fiends lusting for blood (aka the TV viewing audience).
Through twisted fate, Katniss finds herself drafted to a forest of despair. Her solemn trip to the grave becomes interrupted by a visit to the glitzy city known as the Capitol, a high brow metropolis consisting of stylish citizens with questionable morals. Following Katniss into the backwards city is the forlorn Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Based on Katniss’ determination and penchant for arrow play, she can survive; Peeta, however, has no real beneficial skills to supplant dominance in the ensuing battle. Once our central characters reach their coliseum, they’re dressed up and paraded around like a mutt at the Westminster Dog Show. Even though the patrons of Capitol will be screaming for their blood, Peeta and Katniss have to behave as if they’re contestants in a game show. If the crowd likes them, these two teens will receive sponsorships that provide benefits within the bloody game. Stemming from this is a hollow love story between Peeta and Katniss, a shrewd move to help lengthen their chance at survival, and a satirical take on the demands of reality television. Once the pageantry ends, blood drips to the earth as 24 teenagers, some as young as twelve, fill the government constructed battlefield with fear, sweat and physical anguish.
Handling the grim affair is director Gary Ross, whose previous films (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) have been soul affirming flights of fancy. Hunger Games isn’t nearly as positive as the aforementioned endeavors. Slow out of the gates and moving at the pace in which water boils, Ross effectively gets us wrapped up in the strife and heartache that has followed Katniss and the districts around her. Katniss and Peeta’s character construction is crucial to feeling the anxiety in the film’s watershed moment: the beginning of the games. Ross’ interest in articulating character pays big dividends in the games’ opener, a moment where half of the teen participants are slain in a vain attempt to stash weapons and supplies. Through the use of an abrasive camera (one like Paul Greengrass’ style in the Bourne series), we come to feel the adrenaline coursing through Katniss’ veins and the violent mayhem that unfolds before her. Her survival becomes ours to bear. Cementing Katniss’ presence in the games is Jennifer Lawrence, who further demonstrates that her performance in Winter’s Bone was a sign of things to come. Stoic, beautiful and a specimen that emotionally raises the stakes, Lawrence is a performer who legitimizes the feelings that Ross intends to evoke from us.
Without her, Hunger Games would not be successful in developing the necessary pathos to garner genuine affection. Rounding out Ross’ cast is the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and the terrific Josh Hutcherson. The level of social commentary these actors find themselves in is engrossing, but hampered in some capacity by the film’s PG-13 rating. The film goes in for the kill, but never quite reaches the heights it’s grasping for. Undermining some of the film’s emotional resonance is also a lack of development between characters. One moment involving Katniss and the death of a fellow combatant is lacking the depth to truly deliver a powerful scene. Lawrence’s emotional gravitas nearly pulls it off, but the unearned sentimentality glosses over any chance of resonance. But these issues don’t derail the film. If anything, they serve as points of contention to deliver an even better sequel. As it sits now, The Hunger Games is a fantastic film that meticulously crafts a life, a character and a set of people who must adhere to a heinous tradition. Undoubtedly, there are parallels with Battle Royale. The Hunger Games’ satirical potency may not match Royale’s grisly offerings, but there is also an emotional thread present in The Hunger Games that positively separates it from the similar import.