One sentence synopsis: A teenaged girl from a poor region must fight 23 other teenagers to the death for the pleasure of an oppressive government.
Things Havoc liked: Jennifer Lawrence is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses. After an incredible performance in Winters' Bone (which garnered her an oscar), and another amazing one in X-men First Class (where she actually made me give a damn about Mystique), Lawrence here plays the title role of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager in what I assume to be Appalachia who volunteers for the Battle-Royale-esque Hunger Games to spare her younger sister. The movie rests entirely on her shoulders, more or less, and she carries it off with her. Despite being 21 and playing 16, she looks the part and acts the part, helped by the fact that her character clearly has had to grow up very fast in a dystopian, poverty-stricken world that appears to have regressed to the early 1900s. She's not a "designated action star", but when she fights people or shoots them with a bow, we believe it's her doing it, and the movie wisely never makes her do anything that breaks our suspension of disbelief.
The rest of the cast meets her highly-set standard quite handily. Stanley Tucci turns in a hilarious (and vaguely disturbing) role as a talk show host, and Woody Harrelson is hilarious as a former victor of the Hunger Games assigned to whip Katniss into shape. Donald Sutherland, playing the obligatory Donald Sutherland role of the President of the Sovereign Evil People's Evil Republic of Evil, brings his usual grandfatherly charm to a role that is actually fairly menacing, Elizabeth Banks plays an out-of-touch frilly shill with such verve that I was actually impressed, and none other than Lenny Kravitz manages a decent turn as Katniss' 'image' consultant for the all-important sponsorships that accompany the games. Finally, Lawrence (and Katniss') co-star is Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, whom I've literally never seen in anything good, but who actually breaks the trend here. He plays a normal kid selected for this insane competition, who has no chance of winning and knows it, but does largely whatever he has to in order to just make it through.
The movie is hardly subtle in its gradations of the world. Katniss and her people are dirt-poor coal miners from what I assume to be Appalachia, while the citizens of the Capital district (somewhere in the Rockies, I believe) look like a cross between Studio 54 and Versailles. The names of the District 12ers are either plants or traditional rural names (Primrose, Haymitch, Gale) while those of the Capital denizens are Roman (Cinna, Seneca, Coriolanus, Cato, Caesar). There's a very much bread-and-circuses feel attributed to the Capital (its' very name is "Panem"), with characters who witness or even participate in these somewhat monstrous events not from cruelty but from simple ignorance and decadence. It's not what I'd call nuanced, but it does the job.
Despite the trailers, action is not really the focus of this film, and yet when it does happen, the action is decent enough. Much of it is shot in faded-sound, a mechanic I'm seeing more and more of and hope doesn't become overused, with strategic shakes of the camera or blurring effects (this is how you're supposed to use shaky-cam, guys) to mute the violent fact that we're watching kids killing kids. Nobody transforms into a superman at any point, and when people get hurt, it freaking hurts, even if the healing salve that the characters apply several times does seem a bit too effective. Much of the movie is spent simply with tracking, maneuvering, walking, or hiding in the forest, which I suppose is reasonable enough. Were I trapped in a wooded arena wherein 24 people were meant to fight to the death, I'd probably lay low and wait for the numbers to come down too.
Things Havoc disliked: I hate to sound like a teenager, but this movie could really have used more action. I don't mind a cerebral film, nor one that eschews kung fu in a case like this, but the vast majority of the action in this film takes place off-screen, a decision I suspect was made to earn the film a PG-13 rating. It's not that I want Katniss to brutally murder more people, but the film is supposed to be about the brutalization of children and the attempt to hold onto common decency in a setting like this, and allowing Katniss to get away almost clean (which it does) renders that drama inert. There is a sequence where she pairs up with a much younger girl who saves her from a swarm of mutated hornets (don't ask), and who appears to look to her as a protector, and the entire time the audience is left thinking that, by the rules of the game, these two are going to be forced to kill each other. The movie (of course) sidesteps the question, but in doing so, robs the material of the drama that it inherently possesses. The only people Katniss ever actually has to kill are 'designated bad kids' who are generally in the immediate process of doing evil, which results in the film softballing its own hard, brutal premise.
On a slightly less metaphysical note though, the movie is quite long (almost two and a half hours), and while I didn't feel that was too much, I did feel that it didn't make good use of its time. More time spent with the weird and interesting society of Panem would have been nice, as opposed to yet another hike through the woods. Don't get me wrong, I know the Games themselves are the focus here, but we can only watch shots of people staring apprehensively at the trees for so long before we begin to get bored. The strange, facile, decadent world of Panem is so well-crafted that I was left wanting to see more from it, to find out if the majority of its citizens are evil, ignorant, or simply (and most interestingly) have a set of social morals that is simply alien to our own. It would also have been nice to establish some of the other contestants better. Gestures are made in the direction that the other kids, even the "evil" other kids, are just kids who are doing what they feel they have to in a situation that terrifies them all out of their wits. More of that would have aided the dramatic weight of the film more than the fourth shot of Katniss tying herself to the top of a tree to sleep.
Final thoughts: Based on a YA trilogy of books (unread by me), the Hunger Games seems to have done well enough at the Box Office to merit sequels, and I can't say I disagree with that judgment based on the quality of the film. While I would have liked to see more of certain elements and less of others, the film itself is well-structured, acted, and shot, and Lawrence is a very believable and likeable heroine (even if her Appalachian accent is about as pronounced as my own). Though I wasn't as rapturous about it as some people I've talked to, I did quite like this film, and I would be interested in seeing where the series goes next. In an age where YA books have spawned such movie series as Twilight, I suppose one should count one's blessings.
Final Score: 7/10