All the pre-release hype for The Hunger Games is destined to leave fans of Suzanne Collins' teen trilogy feeling underwhelmed by the movie.
Whatever the rewards of Collins' written fiction, the movie systematically disappoints. As a dystopian satire of a competitive reality show taken to its logical extreme, it is familiar (The Running Man, Battle Royale), vague and toothless. As an action movie, it is flabby. As speculative science fiction, it is lazy.
The movie's most redeeming asset, however, is 21-year-old actress Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen. One can see how Lawrence's Oscar-nominated work as Ree, a grimly determined Ozark teen investigating the fate of her missing father in Winter's Bone, helped her land the much-coveted role of Katniss. Both characters seem whittled from the same branch, right down to their mutually catatonic moms.
(Lest anyone interpret this to mean Winter's Bone served as a feature-length audition reel, let me here assert Debra Granik's 2010 drama is the superior movie.)
In the America of the future -- called Panem -- the haves have evidently won a past war with the have-nots, leaving a two-tiered society of pampered, decadent urbanites and hardscrabble country folk. Katniss belongs to the latter category, eking out a living for her little sister and mother in their rustic, Appalachian-like District 12 by illegally hunting game with her bow and arrow.
Panem's totalitarian government, headed by the sly, malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland), just can't leave them downtrodden kids alone. Every year, boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18 are assembled in their district and two are randomly chosen to participate in the Hunger Games. In the televised spectacle, all 24 chosen "Tributes" are taken to Panem's capitol, where they are groomed, trained and eventually left to fight each other to the death until only one champion remains.
When Katniss's little sister Prim is chosen, Katniss herself steps up and volunteers to be a Tribute in her place.
(Just asking: How are downtrodden citizens supposed to be kept subjugated by the televised spectacle of their children murdering each other? How does that work?)
Katniss and an unfabulous baker boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are taken to the decadent, decidedly foppish Capitol City, where they are instructed by alcoholic former Hunger Games champ Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) in the in and outs of being a Tribute, including how to market themselves to prospective sponsors.
When the games begin, Katniss learns the competition is not as solitary as she expected. A clique of mean kids, headed by the vicious Cato (Alexander Ludwig), has been trained from childhood to win the game, and the members unfairly mob together to diminish their competitors' numbers. Katniss herself gravitates to allies, including the mischievous young Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and, inevitably, the lovelorn Peeta.
The games themselves provide a bit of interest, if not white-knuckle suspense. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville), who co-adapted Collins' book with Billy Ray and Collins herself, doesn't have much in the way of visual style.
The narrative is likewise lacking. There is something of a science-fiction premise in the story's "Muttations" -- genetically altered creatures thrown into the mix to challenge the competitors -- but the way Ross haphazardly conjures them up at pivotal moments, they may as well have sprung from Lord Voldemort's wand.
Ultimately, Jennifer Lawrence keeps us watching. As Katniss stoically overcomes every challenge thrown her way, so too does Lawrence prevail over the film's drab direction, boneless scripting and over-acting guest stars (Stanley Tucci is especially egregious as an overweening, pecksniffian TV host: Ben Mulroney to the 10th power).
It is thanks to Lawrence that this film lands the Hunger Games franchise in the middle ground, with the bravura myth-making of Harry Potter on top and the simpering teen melodrama of Twilight on the bottom.
Selected excerpts from reviews of The Hunger Games.
This futuristic tale of teenage violence is so not my kind of movie that I approached it grudgingly, so imagine my surprise when I ended up being totally exhilarated and enjoying it immensely.
--Rex Reed, New York Observer
The Hunger Games may be derivative, but it is engrossing and at times exciting.
-- Kyle Smith, New York Post
Stunningly designed and superbly written, this is an exciting, enjoyable and intelligent blockbuster with a terrific central performance from Jennifer Lawrence.
-- Matthew Turner, ViewLondon
The Hunger Games is an effective entertainment, and Jennifer Lawrence is strong and convincing in the central role.
-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
The games have begun, and so far they're pretty gripping.
-- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
(It) arrives in theatres... not only intact, but in command of the essentials of storytelling and characterization. The film deserves the massive success it will surely enjoy.
-- Peter Howell, Toronto Star
As thrilling and smart as it is terrifying. There have been a number of big-gun literary series brought to screen over the past decade. This slays them all.
-- Olly Richards, Empire magazine
-- Compiled by Shane Minkin