Theatrical Review: THE HUNGER GAMES
What exactly are audiences expecting from THE HUNGER GAMES? If you want romance, what you get is a forced relationship formed as a means to survive, even if there is a definite spark between the two leads (Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark). If you want action, there are definitely some surprisingly violent moments and a few chase scenes, but once the games start, the televised battle isn't as exhilarating as you might imagine.
THE HUNGER GAMES is a very confident film - well executed within a fully established world - but it's the kind of film that might not satisfy the expectations you have going in. Aligning itself with the source material, THE HUNGER GAMES is quite somber at times, defining itself in quieter moments instead of being beholden to its bold, futuristic landscape.
In an effort to control further rebellions, The Capitol - the controlling elite that fall somewhere in between Big Brother and Ru Paul - hold an annual contest selecting twelve to eighteen year olds from each district as tribute - a tradition that forces them to fight to the death until only one remains. The contest serves two purposes: to quell the rebellion and to provide hope to the outlying districts. Hope, just like fear, is used as a means of control and nothing more. Once Katniss Everdeen stands up and volunteers in order to keep her younger sister, Primrose, out of danger, she becomes sympathetic (and therefore, marketable) to the dystopian fashionistas of The Capitol.
Jennifer Lawrence embodies the role of Katniss with quiet confidence. From the threat of starvation comes a newfound love of the outdoors and hunting - a skill set that proves indispensable once the games begin. Her fear comes through in bouts of insecurity that only her eyes reveal, but there's little doubt that she's a top candidate from the moment she steps on the scene. Undoubtedly, it's Lawrence's performance that keeps THE HUNGER GAMES compelling throughout. She perfectly embodies the role and fans of the book will struggle to envision anyone else as the character from this point forward.
Josh Hutcherson, in his best role to date, is just likable enough that, as the world watches on, we actually start to believe there's a real connection between Katniss and Peeta that goes beyond the reality TV relationship they reluctantly portray in order to gain popularity among the millions tuning in. Peeta's longtime crush on Katniss becomes an alliance between the two chosen District 12 candidates, but the heat of battle creates a real romance that strengthens their bond as they try desperately to stay alive.
The wealthy, doll-like residents of The Capitol are so far removed from any sense of reality that they are almost laughable. Somehow, their whimsical approach to The Hunger Games ritual is actually somewhat endearing, like a child who just doesn't know any better. Their gluttonous, superficial, TV-obsessed culture is obviously a reflection on our own, but it's a subtle connection that doesn't pander or preach. As Katniss' host Effie Trinket, Elizabeth Banks embodies the eerie charm that permeates throughout The Capitol society - a charm that is almost motherly and welcoming, but terribly off-putting at the same time. Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz serve as unlikely guides for Katniss leading up to the contest, and serve as the only example of any kind of genuine humanity. As the eye in the sky, Donald Sutherland plays President Snow - a man who shows slight contempt for the society around him and the mockery they make out of life. Snow actually seems like he would be more at home in one of the outlying districts with people that were a little more ... salt of the earth. Although it's all incredibly outlandish, The Capitol is still a convincing world that lies somewhere between absolute power and side-splitting parody.
When The Hunger Games actually begin, it starts violently. Expendable characters we never knew drop dead but we're given no reason to care. But why should we? The story follows District 12 and its two tributes, not the others. Besides, the sequel will introduce us to many more interesting characters (hint hint). Katniss uses her wits to stay ahead of a forming alliance, sleeping in trees and hunting game. Once the action ramps up, there are a couple of scenes that stand out, but it's not exactly edge-of-your-seat entertainment.
Still, THE HUNGER GAMES is ultimately about the characters. What will Katniss' fate be? Through the performance of Jennifer Lawrence, we're given a reason to care about her and cheer her on. If you're rooting for Katniss Everdeen to be The Victor by the time the credits roll, then hasn't THE HUNGER GAMES done its job? There's a rich world here, one that I'm very much looking forward to revisiting and learning more about. THE HUNGER GAMES doesn't play quite hard enough, but it has heart.
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