Heralding the start of blockbuster season, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games-from the bestseller by Suzanne Collins- is a fitfully exciting, somewhat entertaining post-apocalyptic action drama with some regrettably modern touches (the “handheld” effect—oy!) and a scenario free of any moral ambiguity—which would be fine if it weren’t so clearly aiming for something more.
The basic scenario is that years after a revolution failed to unseat the powerful, wealthy Capitol, the country of Panem continues to hold the Hunger Games, a nationally televised contest in which a male and a female between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen by lottery from each of the 12 districts—to fight to the death until only one is left standing. The central character is Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager with not-so-negligible archery skills, who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister from the impoverished District 12. The other contestant from District 12 is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a baker’s son who harbors a secret (for a while) crush for Katniss. The first half sets up what will become a central triangle (the third being non-contestant Liam Hentsworth as Katniss’s longtime friend), then moves to the Capitol, where the contestants are treated to plush, rapacious Capitol society while training for the Games. This section contains some amusing touches– courtesy of Woody Harrelson as their dissolute mentor-and previous champion of the Games, and Stanley Tucci as a garish, overly coiffed TV host– as it attempts to land some (easy) jabs at the manipulative media and political corruption.
Yet it’s the Games we want—not some warmed-over political/media satire, and here is where the film is a giant– letdown. The action scenes are overly frenetic, making it hard to know who is doing what to whom–it doesn’t help that so little footage is given to the opponents—they’re mainly evil (or angelic) because we’re told they are. We are also given (not once-but twice) the action movie cliché of the villain who talks-and talks-and talks-when he/she could be easily doing away with the heroine (we know how that usually winds up). And talk about being free of ambigutity: the heroine is never put in an uncomfortable moral position –as in having to kill someone just because he/she is a contestant—she only gets to kill the really evil opponents. At certain points I thought to myself: gee, these games are going on forever—and I’m privy to the “good” parts—I wonder if these citizens of the future have other viewing options. Yet there is one good reason I may watch the inevitable sequel: Jennifer Lawrence. She is simply tremendous as Katniss, a wonderfully appealing mix of strength and vulnerability who elevates the surrounding events with her innocent, yet knowing presence. It is Miss Lawrence who makes the Games something to watch.