The Hunger Games (2012) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A feisty heroine in one deadly reality show

Now, Harry Potter series is over, so what is the next big thing to watch at the theater? While it was having its long, enormous success for ten years, many franchises had been attempted in here and there based on the other popular novel series, but, although some of them were good, none of them was as successful as Harry Potter while getting each own failure or success at the box office – and not many of them were continued after that.

“The Hunger Games”, based on the another famous novel series, is one of these latest attempts, and this is a promising start for the upcoming sequels to be produced. It is an entertaining blockbuster movie with a nice story and a good heroine, and, most of all, it is firmly anchored by the diligent lead performance even though it plods a bit during its third act and does less than what it can do with the potentials inside its intriguing futuristic setting.

The background of the movie is America in distant future, which was devastated by some catastrophe and then rebuilt as the dictatorial nation named Panem. America was divided into 13 districts, and they were dominated by the Capitol, the big city located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Poor people in these districts once rebelled against the powerful and wealthy in the Capitol, but the rebel was ruthlessly suppressed, so, as the punishment, 12 districts(District 13 was gone) now have to present a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Capitol. ‘Tributes’ are picked through the annual lottery(“May the odds be ever in your favor.”) and then sent to the Capitol, where they must participate in the dangerous combat/survival game named the Hunger Games. The game will be broadcasted on TV and the show will go on until only one participant survives as the sole victor.

When I heard about its premise, my brain immediately reminded me that I have encountered the similar premises before. In Stephen King’s novel “The Long Walk”, 100 boys were picked and forced to play the game in which they have to keep walking until only one remains still alive and walking. And you have probably heard about that infamous Japanese SF horror film “Battle Royale”(2000), a ruthless story about the teenagers hurled into the extreme survival game where they should kill their colleagues for their own survival.

Anyway, regardless of whether the novel by Suzzane Collins was inspired by these novels or other sources, “The Hunger Games” has its own story and world to tell and show. Its heroine, Katniss Everdeen(Jennifer Lawrence), is a young girl living in District 12, which is probably around the Appalachian Mountains area. When her young sister is unluckily picked at the lottery, she promptly fills her young sister’s place for saving her, and she is sent to the Capitol along with her fellow tribute Peeta Mellark(Josh Hutcherson). They are accompanied by Effie Trinket(Elizabeth Banks), who supervises their procedure, and Haymitch Abernathy(Woody Harrelson), a former winner from District 12 who gives them the helpful advices for the upcoming the 74th Hunger Games.

The Capitol, where the advanced technology is flamboyantly mixed with the various styles from the past, is impressive to watch. Its huge architectures evoke the grandness of the ancient cultures, and, surrounded by them, the tributes for the Hunger Games are not so different from the gladiators of the ancient Rome era. As a matter of fact, at the big opening ceremony, they are presented with the showy costumes and the chariots in front of the excited audiences in the stadium. If you know the meaning of Latin phrase panem et circenses, you will be very amused by this(and now I wonder if there is any country on the Earth which derives its names from food).

The game Katniss and other tributes are subjected to is a twisted reality show. They individually talk with the host Ceasar Flickerman(Stanley Tucci with a slick hairdo) on the stage, and they have to impress the audiences for their advantages in the game while going through the training for their combat and survival skill. Once they complete the preparation stage, and they are sent to the outdoor area called the Arena, which is almost perfectly controlled by the producer Seneca Crane(Wes Bentley with villainous beard) and his staff. Katniss should be careful of not only other participants but also other dangers which can be unleashed by Crane’s staff at any moment. Like the TV producer in “The Truman Show”(1998), while watching everything happening within the Arena through the cameras hidden in here and there, Crane can do anything for the entertainment for his eager mass, and they love that.

There are certainly many killings on and off the screen while the plot is progressed, but, unlike the cutthroat approach of “Battle Royal”, “The Hunger Games” rather stays in the safe zone of PG-13. With the shaky handheld camera, the violence in the film quickly comes and then quickly goes, and the tension during the game is relatively flat compared to its build-up process. In addition, with the resolution a little too easy, the movie does not delve well into the dark, disturbing area where “Battle Royal” uncompromisingly hurled itself into.

But Katniss is a good character we can identify with, and Jennifer Lawrence admirably carries the movie for more than 2 hours as a strong-willed girl who knows a lot about how to survive and how to shoot an arrow. When you see Lawrence trying to hunt for food in the forest, some of you will be instantly reminded of her Oscar-nominated performance in “Winter’s Bone”(2010), and it is sort of amazing that they did not choose Lawrence right from the beginning, considering that Katniss is not so different from the heroine of that movie.

The movie is essentially Lawrence’s show, but some of the supporting performers surrounding her have some fun with their broad characters. Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley and Toby Jones are as flamboyant as their attires and wigs, and Woody Harrelson slowly reveals a good man with the bitterness of lifetime inside the goofy appearance. Lenny Kravitz is a kind-hearted costume designer with some daring idea for Katniss and Peeta’s appearance, and Donald Sutherland gives the sense of authority as the president with increasing concern for the most popular contestant in the show.

Meanwhile, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, who plays Katiness’ boyfriend in her hometown, put Lawrence in the relationship reminiscent of the Twilight series. For securing the sponsorship and the popularity, Katniss reluctantly allows herself involved with Peeta, a bakery boy who has some crush on her even before being picked at the lottery, but her feeling shown in front of the cameras can be more than the pretension for survival – and, like other people in Panem, her boyfriend watches this whole development. But, don’t worry folks, we all know Katniss is an independent girl who always knows what she should do, unlike some passive, self-involved girl pathetically stuck between a handsome vampire and a hunky werewolf.

At present, “The Hunger Games” is responded well by the audiences with the impressive opening week, and the other two books by Collins are scheduled to be adapted into three sequel films. I think the movie is not as thought-provoking as it could have been, but its 142 minutes was not a tepid experience, and I liked its looks and, most of all, Lawrence’s performance. Overall, this is a competent first chapter for the upcoming sequels, and, even if they disappoint us, Lawrence will be our insurance.

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