The Hunger Games is a whole new kind of thrill ride. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) faced a huge hurdle in bringing Susan Collins’ bestselling novels to the screen, namely how to depict a bloody free-for-all where twenty-four kids ages 12-18 fight each other to the death for their freedom and still earn the film a PG-13. He does a masterful job overall, and The Hunger Games turns out to be the rare heavily-hyped film that earns its hype.
The film is set in a future where the government has become a fascist oppressor over twelve districts, all of whom must sacrifice two of their young people to a wildly popular televised event called the Hunger Games each year. All of the people in the districts toil away in impoverished conditions to supply the decadent Capitol with food, minerals and other staples. The Hunger Games were conceived as a way to remind the rebellious districts of the government’s supremacy, but now in its seventy-fourth year, the event is seen as entertainment as much as a symbol.
When eight year-old Primrose Everdeen is chosen in the lottery, her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, in an even bigger star-making performance than her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone) volunteers, joining Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson from The Kids Are All Right) and becoming an instant fan favorite going into the battle. Woody Harrelson is funny and poignant as Haymitch Abernathy, Peeta and Katniss’ drunken mentor, and Elizabeth Banks is unrecognizable but hilarious as spokeswoman Effie Trinket.
Once Peeta and Katniss reach the Capitol, they are treated like exalted American Idol finalists, feted and paraded on TV in stylist-approved outfits meant to boost their audience approval ratings. Some of the other “Tributes” (as the government insists they be called) have been bred and trained since birth for the games, putting Katniss and Peeta at a disadvantage against bloodthirsty rivals like Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Glimmer (Leven Rambin from All My Children) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman, the creepy girl in Orphan). Wes Bentley and Stanley Tucci are perfect as Seneca Crane the Gamemaker and Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games’ version of Ryan Seacrest, with a cobalt blue Samurai hairdo.
While Ross depends too much on the shaky handicam to avoid showing too much bloodshed, the production values are spectacular, creating a completely engrossing new world you can’t get enough of. The fact that only one “Tribute” can survive the Hunger Games gives the film a suspense and urgency that raises it miles above the Twilight movies. The casting is perfect and the ending will satisfy audiences while making them eager for the inevitable sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
Reel Thoughts Rating: A-
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.