So there was this big war, and the world was divided into 12 districts, and as a reminder of its vicious past the Capitol decreed that each district send two children, ages 12-18, to participate in a fight to the death. Somehow this is to remind them of not only their past but humility and the fact that they’re likely to die young. But it seems like a post-apocalyptic society with a blend of technology and rustic charm, so who knows. Anyway, 24 kids, chosen randomly at ceremonies called Reapings, and it’s all a Big Deal. They’ve been doing it for almost three-quarters of a century.
District 12 is a hardscrabble, coal-mining community whose mine blew up. So people are pretty destitute. They (barely) live off the land. When the Reaping comes, Primrose Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are chosen. Poor Prim’s just a little girl, so her older sister Katniss (Lawrence) volunteers in her place. This has apparently never happened before, which seems implausible, but you can go with it.
The two Tributes are then taken to the capitol city, where they are judged and evaluated in order to gain sponsors; sponsors can help you when you’re in the middle of the forest. Preparing Katniss and Peeta for the Games is Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who’s actually won the games and can offer advice, and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) whose job it is to make the two Tributes look good when being presented in the parade and the talk show and so on and so on. And then the games begin.
Imagine you’re in the middle of a field within a semicircle containing 23 other young people. Some of them are athletic. Some are tiny and may never have left the house. Some have been preparing their entire lives. There is a cache of weaponry and food near the semicircle. Your mission is to survive longer than everyone else. You’re under a lot of stress already, and now it really sinks in – you will certainly have to kill one or more of those you see, kids with whom you have no quarrel. Kill or be killed, as they say.
The entire Games takes place in a huge climate-controlled dome. In fact, everything can be created/controlled, including fire and animals. As in the TV series Survivor, some of the kids form alliances, led by alpha males. Katniss isn’t that kind of creature. She doesn’t even want to be there. Who does? The ones who have been training all their lives, of course.
The cinematography is riveting. It’s sometimes tough to get a read on a situation when all you see are people running through the woods, close up. Not here. The director of photography, Tom Stern, does a miraculous job of keeping us in the story, involved with the main characters, without losing the edge of heart-racing action.
I thought Lawrence was amazing in her gritty performance in Winter’s Bone. This cements, in my mind, her standing as a tremendous talent. She is perfect for this role; her Katniss is tenacious, willful, and both terrified and determined. She’s a skilled archer (has to be back home in order to find any food) but lacks a certain, shall we say, charm. Although she’s not unattractive, she never smiles, seems resentful, and as a result is tough to get along with. Before the games, anyway. Through the tutelage of Cinna and Abernathy, she’s able to show enough grace and poise to win some people over.
It’s a knockout performance. Sure, you’re supposed to be rooting for her anyway, even though she isn’t the underdog in the fight. She’s the one with the compelling backstory – young sister and distant mother at home, father killed in mine accident. She has a lot to fight for. Lawrence can evoke respect and fear just by her expressive eyes. And, of course, the role itself is physically very demanding, and she’s well up to the task. But Lawrence’s great skill here is in engaging the audience to the point where even if they believe she will win, they desperately want to know how she’ll accomplish it. Will she kill? Will she not kill someone? (Remember, only one can survive.)
I like it when movies that seem to have a certain predictability about them – a predetermined finale, for example – throw in a twist that makes perfect sense but still isn’t really foreseeable. As long as a seismic character change doesn’t occur (such as a “good” person very suddenly becoming “bad” to further the plot), this is a welcome change – and it’s tough to do. Big praise to The Hunger Games for throwing in twists that weren’t laughable and to leaving the ending a little open ended in some regards. Not all loose ends are tied up. They often aren’t in real life, either.
So, as long as you don’t closely question the movie’s overall premise, you’ll be very pleased with this film. It’s well acted all around, immaculately shot and edited, and has intense, action scenes that will leave you as exhausted as the participants.
The Hunger Games: ***1/2