Title: The Hunger Games
Directed By: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Willow Shields, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Donald Sutherland, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman
The pressure is on. The time has come and now the world really is watching. Does The Hunger Games live up to the hype that’s preceded its release? Most certainly.
The nation of Panem consists of 12 districts and the Capitol. As punishment for a rebellion, each district must pay penance to the nation by sending one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to the Capitol to compete in the annual Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death.
When Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) younger sister Prim’s (Willow Shield) name is randomly selected during the District 12 reaping, Katniss does something no District 12 citizen has ever done before; she volunteers to take Prim’s place in the Hunger Games. And so it is done; Katniss is forced to say her goodbyes and board a train to the Capitol alongside her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), to fight for her life.
The concept in itself is enough to get just about anyone hooked. No, the idea of children killing each other in order to preserve their own life isn’t appealing, but it is intriguing. However, what’s even more captivating than that is the world that’s built around it – the people in it, the districts that keep it running and the values that make the nation of Panem what it is when we enter The Hunger Games.
After a brief introductory conversation between the elaborately done-up Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and the Hunger Games host/announcer Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), we’re whisked away to the drudges of District 12, the coal mining district of Panem and the home of Katniss Everdeen. Katniss’ first scene is short and sweet yet loaded with insight as she eases Prim’s fear of being chosen at the Reaping. Then it’s time for a taste of our heroine’s physical capabilities as she heads into the woods to hunt with her hunting partner and best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Just as you get a firm sense of who she is and where she comes from, you really get to see what she’s capable of when she inadvertently steals the spotlight at the district Reaping. And that’s only the beginning.
As well defined as Katniss is, she reveals more and more layers from beginning to end, many of which are tactfully intertwined with the happenings in the games. While a great deal of that success stems from smart writing, the majority of the credit goes to the film’s star. Just as you could describe Katniss as an instinctual character, an honest person who’s just fighting for what she believes in, so is true of Lawrence’s performance. She is so unassuming as an actress, every fiber of her being blends right into this character. While the Hunger Games itself is primarily one big show, Katniss’ performance, and essentially Lawrence’s, most certainly is not. It’s impossible not to be swayed by this character’s fight.
The Hunger Games loses its footing a bit when it comes to its supporting cast. The only other character who feels fully realized is Peeta. Similarly to Lawrence, Hutcherson delivers an overwhelmingly honest performance and while the pair’s chemistry isn’t entirely convincing, it’s appropriate in the context of the story. Elizabeth Banks puts on a chilling show as the District 12 escort, Effie Trinket. While Effie is particularly striking due to her appearance, a great deal of credit belongs to Banks who fuels this Capitol cheerleader with an eerie zest stemming from her genuine enthusiasm and love for such a vicious occasion. The character’s sole fault is that she feels rather hallow, as we never gain access to her thoughts and emotions.
Woody Harrelson makes an impression as well as Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, but suffers one minor misstep. One moment, he’s a drunken mess unwilling to participate, but the next, he’s the man with the plan who’s prepared to win. However, once we do get over that hump, Harreslon has a commanding presence and serves as a very necessary source of comfort. The only performance that raises some concern is Hemsworth as Gale. He isn’t given too much to work with in this first film, but the moments he has he shares with Lawrence and he just can’t quite get to her level.
Some of the tributes stumble a bit as well, but it’s more likely that that’s a result of the direction they were given. Rather than trouncing through the woods like a deadly force, the band of Careers, kids that train all their lives to fight in the Hunger Games, comes across as a giddy group of teenagers. However, the District 2 tributes, Cato and Clove (Alexander Ludwig and Isabelle Fuhrman), both get the chance to show what they’re really capable of, using their biggest moments to their advantage. Fuhrman in particular is the core of one of the film’s most striking moments.
As far as pacing goes, The Hunger Games is appropriately relentless. Not only is there a lot to cover, but the swift pace suits the material, upping the pressure. There are a few scenes that feel quite abrupt, namely the Hunger Games opening ceremony which isn’t allotted enough time to show all the tributes’ outfits, but overall, the film is wildly successful in terms of presenting the material in an understandable and emotional fashion. There are at least ten scenes worthy of a tear or two, if not more, and a helping handful of visuals that are downright unforgettable.
Director Gary Ross’ coverage can get a little manic during a fight scene or two, but generally, his camerawork is notably fresh offering up all sorts of appealing camera angles, almost all of which serves the material in a deliberate fashion, enhancing emotion and, at times, making you feel as though you’re in Katniss’ shoes. He’s also got an incredible eye for detail, using every inch of his fantastically designed sets and costumes to further drive particular points home. We’ve also got a pitch-perfect score, serving as an overwhelmingly successful tool to establish tone, but also never intruding unnecessarily.
The Hunger Games isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. What weight do those flaws have when the overall product is so incredibly moving? The severity of the occasion isn’t trivialized in the least, leaving you even more vulnerable to having your heart broken time and time again. When Peeta’s name is called, when Katniss says goodbye to her family, when the pair board the train for the Capitol, Katniss’ final moment with her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), watching her rise through the tube and into the arena, The Hunger Games is an unforgettable piece of work. It’s highly entertaining material with the power to tap into your deepest sentiments.
Do we have the next big film franchise here, something that’ll inspire a worldwide frenzy? Undoubtedly. And, best of all, The Hunger Games deserves it.
There’s no denying the fact that I’m a proud Hunger Games fan and have been one far before the film came into the picture, but, as a film critic, I owe it to the feature film version to assess it as a standalone entity. That is the review you find here.