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Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games

Rating

Director
Gary Ross
Screenplay
Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray (Novel: Suzanne Collins)
Length
142 min.
Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Wes Bentley, Amandla Stenberg
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens.

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Review
It's not hard to imagine a future where an authoritarian government lies, manipulates and threatens its citizens. Many of us aren't far off from that future as it is. That's why a film like The Hunger Games, based on the bestseller by Suzanne Collins, provides those astute enough to notice with a significant forecast of what our lives could one day be like if we allow our government too much power.

While the precise future of Hunger Games is significantly unlikely, sometimes it takes a vast and far-reaching idea to plant the seed of protection and rebellion among the public once they recognize where freedom ends and oppression begins. One of the reasons it's an unlikely outcome is the very concept of children fighting to the death like some gladitorial game put on to placate and warn the masses. It's been centuries since the adult-version was popular in Rome, but we are never as far removed from the past as we like to think or hope.

The novel and film follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a sixteen-year-old girl living in the coal mining District 12, has spent much of her life caring for her mother and twelve-year-old sister after the unexpected death of their father in a mining explosion. To keep her family from starving, she routinely bypasses the fence surrounding the district and hunts wild game in the vast forests. She longs for the day when she can take her family and run away from the Capitol's ruthless assault on their lives along with her family and the family of her fellow hunting partner and best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Lawrence brings a world weary concern to Katniss that brings the troubled youth from the books to life on the big screen. While we get more introspective commentary from Katniss in the novels, Lawrence does a fine job conveying those complex and conflicting emotions in the film. While a good twenty minutes could have been tacked on to her scenes contemplating fellow District 12 contestant Peeta Mallark's (Josh Hutcherson) fate and their budding romantic feelings, the film doesn't go overboard on sentimentality giving us just enough information to see the conflict and feelings between them. This is helped as much by Lawrence's performance as Hutcherson's. Hutcherson is no stranger to acting and is the most experienced in the young cast in the film. Having appeared in the excellent features Bridge to Terabithia and The Kids Are All Right (and the discardable Journey to the Center of the Earth), he seems a natural to handle the depth Peeta needed not only in this film, but the subsequent films when he's given more of a chance to show off his talents.

Two young actresses emerged in 2010 as Oscar nominees. Lawrence in Best Actress for Winter's Bone and Hailee Steinfeld in the Coen Brothers' True Grit. While Steinfeld has a couple of impressive projects in the works, Jennifer Lawrence has ignited her acting career in a way that reminds me of a young Elizabeth Taylor. I'd even go so far as to say that Lawrence could easily follow Taylor's footsteps, successfully jumping from genre to genre, both independent and blockbuster, without feeling forced. Taylor had a few dud performances and I'm sure Lawrence will as well, but after her debut in Winter's Bone, her subsequent appearance in X-Men: First Class and now her performance in The Hunger Games, I'd say she has the chops to do just about anything and do it well.

The adults are more than up to the task of the talented youngsters with Donald Sutherland delivering the best of them, giving us equal measure leadership strength and seething viciousness with all the smoothness of a successful leader. As President Snow, Sutherland's icy delivery paints his character as a clever and ruthless villain without making him utterly outlandish. A lot of recent films have gone to great lengths to make their enemies so grandiose that they lose credibility in the translation. Director Gary Ross and Sutherland have managed to tamp down that tendency to chew scenery and create a chilling nemesis for Katniss.

Singer Lenny Kravitz more than carries his weight as Katniss and Peeta's conscientious and dedicated costumer. Getting them ready for their emergence into the televised limelight, Kravitz conveys compassion that few in the Capitol seem capable of. While everyone around him, including fellow District 12 assistant Effie (Elizabeth Banks), prefer the ostentatiousness that only wealth and privelege can provide, he prefers to keep his style simple and goes only for the faint hint of gold glitter eyeliner to set himself apart. An emotional anchor for Katniss, Kravitz does better than I would have imagined when I first heard he had been cast in the role.

Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones do expectedly solid work, while Woody Harrelson delivers a performance seemingly familiar with a few doses of personality. Wes Bentley does something different, however. Taking on the role of Seneca Crane, the gamesmaster who controls the vast battlefield in which Katniss, Peeta and their 22 other competitors compete is barely mentioned in the book, largely because we don't get to see the inner workings of the control booth. Here, Ross wisely expands our scope to see a bit of the behind-the-scenes manipulation that occurs. This not only effectively sets the pace and flavor for the film, it gives us an important look at one of Hunger Games' major themes: the machinations that control and define how reality TV is displayed to the masses. Making everything look unplanned while seemingly preparing for every inevitability and going out of the way to make sure the pawns do as you want them. Bentley does a fantastic job layering the control room with tension and trepidation, trying to put on a great show for the audience, while adhering to strict rules designed to tamp down rebellion among the various districts.

This concept isn't the foremost one on display in the film, but it's one of the important social commentaries that help set our protagonists into a fight for their own existences and tacitly the survival of their districts against a cruel dictatorial regime that, to those given the world by it, doesn't look at all treacherous. In many of the districts, the citizens find themselves serving capacities in the Capitol with decreasing regularity. Being the most impoverished, District 12 hasn't won a Hunger Games in several years, Harrelson's Haymitch being the last to do so. Their resource, coal, has become decreasingly valued by the Capitol and poverty has increased dramatically, leading our heroine to protect her family the only way she knows how and thus preparing herself for the kind of tooth-and-nail fighting techniques that should serve her well in the arena.

When the government ceases to be about the people and instead services only those who have or can provide the most important commodities, it becomes an increasingly fragile republic that resorts to threats, coercion and retaliation as a method of control those who might stand up against them. As I mentioned earlier, this is a film that has some disturbing parallels between the modern government of the United States and the regime depicted as The Capitol. In the U.S. class warfare has become a central battle in many citizens' lives and although we admonish the rest of the world for employing such duplicitous tactics, we engage in a campaign of fear, intimidation and suppression against those assembling peacefully. And this is where The Hunger Games nails its thematic importance. In a futuristic society where the government has cracked down on the public and would do so more as the book trilogy continued forward, we were given a brief glimpse at what American life might be in the future were we to give too much power to the government. Of course, the viewer is given free rein to choose how this vision impacts their daily lives, but the parallels between the Roman Empire and modern society are astutely observed and making for a wholly more engaging product, especially when you consider what else is out there for the 'tween audience these days.

Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: There are no guarantees with this kind of film.
Probables: Original Song (both "Abraham's Daughter" by Arcade Fire and "Safe & Sound" by Taylor Swift)
Potentials: Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Supporting Actor (Donald Sutherland), Editing, Cinematography
Review Written
April 20, 2012

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