While the ending is a bit of a mess, the rest isn’t terrible (and nobody sparkles in the sunlight).
Future North America is a place called Panem, a capital city-state surrounded by twelve districts. To keep the peace as a reminder of the horrors of war, each district is required to annually offer a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to fight one another in the Hunger Games, and it’s a fight to the death. When a young woman named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) does the unthinkable and volunteers for the games to spare her selected sister, it’s the first of many signs that point to her as a possible champion in the making. While the games offer a spark of hope for the both contestants and viewers alike, the people who manipulate the games behind the scenes aren’t about to let a poor girl from a backwoods district inspire anything but a glorious and entertaining death.
Never having read the book but still familiar with the story (you’d have to wear blinders online not to be), The Hunger Games borrows much from earlier dystopian science fiction and reworks it into young adult fare. With a cast of seasoned actors to carry some of the weight (including Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Toby Jones, and Donald Sutherland), the teens and ‘tweens mostly appear and die in as many ways as a PG-13 rating will allow (although following the book to the letter might have incurred a hard R rating). Where the story goes off the rails is the battle royal itself as Katniss lucks out or is helped out of every dangerous situation; when someone who refuses to kill others wins a fight to the death by default, there’s no other word for it other than manipulation.
Most of the film works very well, from early setup and the training sequences to finally getting out into the battlefield. The contrast between the poor provincial districts and the high-tech, over-produced capital is night and day, showcasing excess on the backs of the underprivileged. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen as an interesting and capable young woman, a refreshing change from someone like Twilight’s Bella. After the battle begins and the death toll begins to mount, the film strikingly grinds to a halt with Katniss’s determination to simply wait the games out. While the high-tech game masters obviously have lots of futuristic toys at their disposal to make things miserable for the so-called tributes, some of the things they summon and banish at will step off the plausible path and go headlong into the absurd. Wasn’t it enough that Katniss was going to succeed against the evil jocks because she has a good heart (not to mention being the main character)?
Woody Harrelson probably deserves the most credit here, believable pulling off the complexities of a character like Haymitch. Speaking of which, there’s no explanation given as to why all the names are so goofy (Katniss? A boy named Gale? Effie? Haymitch? Peeta?) except maybe to suggest a future time when they must have simply run out of common names like Mary and Joseph. Some other plot points are also brought up and left hanging, but it’s possible (being a series and all) that these are threads meant to be left to seed the inevitable sequels. With the pre-release buzz through the roof, this film is all but critic proof, but parents dragging their ‘tweenage daughters out to see this should be happily surprised at the lack of glittery vampires and boring girls who just want a boyfriend.
(a three skull recommendation our of four)