Gary Ross' fourth feature portrays young adult writer Suzanne Collins' vision of the future. But this future does not bring flying cars, super-advanced robots or time travel. Instead it brings 'The Hunger Games,' a horrific celebration of totalitarianism and fear where twenty-four boys and girls (between the ages of twelve and eighteen) from twelve districts are brought to a large arena to fight to the death.
Sounds an awful lot like "Battle Royale," a 2000 Japanese film with a similar premise. However, "The Hunger Games" exceeds in acting, character development, and substance over what was somewhat an underdeveloped bloodbath (albeit a creative one.) Although this film pushes the PG-13 rating it has nowhere near the level of violence as "Battle Royale" and should be okay for kids over a certain age.
The heart of this story is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence,) who is forced to care for her beloved younger sister Primrose (talented newcomer Willow Shields) when her father gets blown up in a mining explosion and her mother falls into a deep depression. Her back-story bears some similarities to Lawrence's role in the rural thriller "Winter's Bone" back in 2000, but "The Hunger Games" is glossier, more action-packed, and goes in a completely different direction.
This year's Hunger Games, Katniss knows that her sensitive twelve-year-old sister, due to her age has been placed in the drawing only a few times and statistically has a smaller chance of getting picked. To her horror, however, Primrose is drawn, and Katniss, knowing her sister doesn't stand a chance, volunteers to fight in her place.
After leaving her potential love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and placing Primrose in the questionable care of her mother, Katniss heads by train to the capital, where she is introduced briefly to a luxurious lifestyle before being offered up in the arena like a sheep for the slaughter. The other kid from her district, Peeta Mellark, has harbored a crush on her for many years, which makes the circumstances of the situation even harder.
Jennifer Lawrence is, at twenty-one, five years too old for the role, but her talent shines through, and her Katniss is a character to be appriciated. Her relationship with Peeta moved a little quicker than I would have liked, as after a crucial plot development they are hanging over each other like lovesick puppy dogs. Their friendship is more ambiguous and conflicted in the book as well.
The other actors are good, including Stanley Tucci, Amanda Stenberg, and Woody Harrelson as drunken former child contestant Haymitch Abernathy. Tucci (despite not having as juicy a role as he did in "The Lovely Bones," is good, and his portrayal of gaudy, grinning talk-show host Caesar Flickerman is a disturbingly on-target depiction of the fakeness and pomp and circumstance of reality TV.
The Muttations were well done. One of my main concerns about the movie adaptation was that they wouldn't be able to translate them onto the screen without becoming corny, and although they were not as horrifying as they were in the book (functioning instead as vicious, kinda-cute mastiff-looking creatures,) the special effects people pulled them off.
"The Hunger Games" is very much worth a ticket to the theater, although I would not recommend it to young or sensitive children. It is exciting, rousing science fiction with a message, and Katniss is a strong character worth rooting for.