BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Better than a stuffy old press screening, I experienced the full dystopian impact of the Hunger Games by attending the Thursday night midnight debut of the anxiously-awaited adaptation of the juvenile fiction favorite. Even more than the movie itself, the horrendous pre-show advertising made me feel that I’m living in some Sci-Fi author’s nauseous future with ads encouraging impressionable young audiences to join the Marines and march proudly into a desert dust storm, watch mean-spirited TV comedies, and, in a seemingly counter-productive move for theaters, endless commercials inviting the assembled crowd to stay at home glued to their computers. The film trailers were hardly more inspiring, three-quarters were for well-worn franchises (“G.I. Joe, with Bruce Willis and The Rock!”) as well as a comedy about fathers who compulsively endanger their infant children. It’s a enough to make a big city liberal howl like a Bible-spouting conservative, “These are not my values!” By the time this latest hopeful franchise appeared on screen, the barrage of pandering junk seemed specially-designed to prime the pump of a film critic’s deep well of cynicism.
But the most welcome of surprises is that The Hunger Games feels like a real movie, not just the franchise linchpin meant to launch a million other marketing opportunities but a hugely engaging, thought-provoking pop sci-fi thriller. Its age-old premise (reaching back at least as far as the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game) contains an irresistible tension and delivers a streamlined, timely tale of a oppressive government that demands the ultimate sacrifice from its citizens.
Screenwriter Gary Ross has a slim filmography as a director, this is just his third film, following 1998’s Pleasantville and 2003’s Seabiscuit. Ross’ previous films are both period pieces and Hunger Games too traffics in imagery of the past, both the Great Depression, with the Dorthea Lange-style plain cotton dresses of it heroines as well as the French Revolution-era foppery that influences the fashions of its decadent ruling class. But more importantly, Ross’ unobtrusive style as director gives this tale a stately, old-time quality as well, endowing Hunger Games with a feel closer to a Clint Eastwood drama than a pumped up, continually in-your-face modern action film.
Yet what does feel contemporary about the film is its underlying details, its all-seeing government that surveils its citizens from the sky, its casually cruel “Reality TV” shows, its “one-percenters” oblivious to the pain of its citizens, and the air of hopelessness among its citizens. Unlike the Twilight series, that demands you tap into the mindset of sexually-confused teenagers, Hunger Games’ relevance easily reverberates beyond adolescent fears.
Compared to Twilight‘s mopey Bella, Hunger Games is blessed with the more confident character of Katniss, a brooding young woman of the woods whose archery skills have become sharply refined to fulfill the needs of her impoverished mother and sister. First discovered as a poor determined hill country teen of 2010’s Winter’s Bone, the self-contained actress Jennifer Lawrence cements her status as our young heroine of the New Depression; what are the odds that a blossoming star’s two major roles are both characters who survive by hunting squirrels? One of the most strikingly modern qualities of Katniss is how undefined she is by her sex. Like today’s young Western women, who as a whole out-score men in high school and college studies, Katniss is characterized by her skills and intellectual prowess, while her gender going unmentioned and nearly unnoticed. Bella by comparison seems completely inert, a character waiting for deadening vampiric life to happen to her.
The action starts early when in order to replace her under-prepared young sister (Willow Smith, whipping her hair neither back nor forth and making little impression), Katniss volunteers to represent her post-apocalyptic district at the annual Hunger Games event. Here, two young people from each of the twelve provinces meet in the wooded arena (played here by the great state of North Carolina) to fight their opponents to the death. Like The Lord of the Flies, heartless alliances soon form and the ego-maniacal pretty boy Gale (Liam Hemsworth, whose brother Chris plays Thor over at the Marvel franchise) heads a murderous posse that goes on the hunt for the too-capable Katniss.
Much of the film’s 142 minutes take place in the forest, where the film lingers long enough to let you forget the futuristic premise that frames the action. The occasional injections of futuristic technology usually have a disturbing quality, whether it is genetically modified hallucinogenic wasps or a night sky taken over with images beamed upon it from the government. While Katniss excels in the primitive world she lives, she slowly learns that she has to sell herself to the glossy surfaces of the media-driven society. She can’t just win the game, her survival demands that she makes others like her as well. Katniss bravely battles the government, her handlers (including a drunken Woody Harrelson and a supportive Lenny Kravitz), the boy who loves her, and a pack of giant pit bull/lion mutations. But sure to win the empathy of school kids everywhere, the movie ends with the soul-sucking battle for popularity sizing up as Katniss’ most treacherous battle yet.