[Screen It]


(2012) (Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson) (PG-13)

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Action/Drama: In a post-apocalyptic world, a 16-year-old girl tries to stay alive as she competes in a televised battle to the death with twenty-three other kids.
Sometime in the undetermined, post-apocalyptic future, Capitol President Coriolanus Snow (DONALD SUTHERLAND) and his government forces control the populace of Panem by dividing them into twelve districts. To prevent any uprising among those poor groups, the government has created the Hunger Games, where one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 are selected to compete in a battle to the death. Run by Seneca Crane (WES BENTLEY), the Games are designed not only as televised entertainment for the gilded masses of the Capitol, but also to show everyone else that the government is in complete control.

The competitors, known as Tributes, are selected in a lottery known as the Reaping, and most recognize it's a certain death sentence since only one person will come out alive. With that in mind, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (JENNIFER LAWRENCE) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, Prim (WILLOW SHIELDS), when the latter is selected. With their mother (PAULA MALCOMSON) worried about her safety, Katniss leaves behind close friend Gale Hawthorne (LIAM HEMSWORTH) and sets off for the Capitol with the other competitor from their district, the baker's son Peeta Mellark (JOSH HUTCHERSON), and their representative, Effie Trinket (ELIZABETH BANKS).

With four days of training before the Games begin, Katniss -- who's quite capable with a bow and arrow due to having to hunt for food for her family -- and Peeta hope that their mentor and former Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (WOODY HARRELSON) will give them helpful advice and tips about how to stay alive. And stylist Cinna (LENNY KRAVITZ) does his best to make them as appealing as possible before appearing on a TV show with host Caesar Flickerman (STANLEY TUCCI). That's important because potential sponsors could send them life-saving food and/or supplies.

As the Games begin, various competitors are killed in the initial bloodbath, while Katniss flees into the woods where she eventually befriends and is assisted by Rue (AMANDLA STENBERG), a much younger girl. But they must contend not only with ruthless competitor Cato (ALEXANDER LUDWIG) and his band of followers, but also the knowledge that only one of them will make it out alive.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Mankind has a long, varied and often ugly blood-thirst for participating in or viewing violence. Not being a historian, I can't state with any certainty when violence first became linked with "entertainment," but one only need think of ancient Rome and its gladiator games and other public spectacles (gladiator vs. slave, slave vs. animal, animal vs. animal, etc.) to spot the irony of "civilized" people and nations enjoying such mayhem.

Of course, nowadays, such deadly violence has been truncated down to the hunting of animals for sport (rather than food) and first-person shooter video games. It's also been transformed into the voyeurism of professional sports (boxing obviously being the direct descendant), elimination style reality TV shows where the losers are removed from the broadcast rather than killed off, and movies where countless characters have met their end in all sorts of ways over the decades.

The notion of violence as entertainment warrants thematic exploration in the much hyped big screen adaptation of "The Hunger Games." As written by Suzanne Collins and originally published in 2008, the novel of the same name and with its two sequels have sold north of 25 million copies and thus become the latest example of "young adult" literature that's attained cross-demographic appeal, much like the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" works.

While "Games" doesn't involve wizards, vampires or werewolves, its main characters are kids, ranging from 12 to 18-years-old who compete in the titular activity whose title apparently stems from building up lottery points in exchange for food and/or the "hunger" to survive, etc. It's about a futuristic North American land called Panem where the gilded, high tech government controls its 12 districts by holding annual gladiator style, fight to the death contests -- televised no less -- featuring a boy and girl from each locale. The Hunger Games are designed not only to entertain the poor masses, but also keep them in check by showing that the Capitol is an omnipotent and omnipresent force not to be taken lightly.

I'm not familiar with Collins' literary motives behind writing the three books, but one can easily spot or at least project in any number of heavy thematic issues that permeate the tale. There's the most obvious one about mankind's thirst for violence and how that's now trickled down to kids. Some will see the obvious dig at reality TV shows like "Survivor."

Others will see parallels to (mostly) young people off fighting real-life military wars (if the draft were still in place there would be an obvious connection to the story's "reaping" scenes -- where the contestants or "tributes" are chosen by lottery) and/or the societal battle of the haves and have-nots (referred to of recent as the 99 vs. 1 percent). Throw a teen love story into the mix (with a complication that makes "Romeo & Juliet's" family feud problem seem like small potatoes), and a teenager heroine as the lead, and it's no surprise that the novels have reached such heights of popularity.

Having not read any of the three books, I can't comment on how well the filmmakers -- writer/director Gary Ross and screenwriters Collins and Billy Ray -- have adapted the written words into sights and sounds on the screen. I'll leave that up to the diehard fans and instead will stick to what a movie reviewer is supposed to do and that's critique the end product regardless of its origin.

Although I wasn't always blown away by the 142-some minute film and/or its various elements, for the most part I was engaged by the tale. And much of that is due to the presence of and performance by Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen. The 21-year-old actress, best known until now for appearing in "X-Men: First Class" and her Oscar-nominated turn in "Winter's Bone," not only convincingly plays the 16-year-old protagonist, but also makes us care about that character.

And that's fairly important in a tale where 24 competitors will be whittled down -- and not in a good or recoverable way -- to just one victor. Granted, our sympathies are instantly evoked when Katniss, who initially longs for a different and better life with her guy friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), volunteers to take the place of her younger sister (Willow Shields) who's become the unlucky chosen one in the Reaping. Our heroine is quite capable with a bow and arrow and thus seems like she'll survive for a while -- unlike her district companion (Josh Hutcherson) -- but she needs some work with her publicity, especially if she's going to win over potentially life-saving sponsors by conducting TV interviews with the flamboyant Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, obviously having a balling hamming it up). That necessitates the help of a stylist (a charismatic Lenny Kravitz) and a former Hunger Games winner (a good Woody Harrelson), the latter of whom realizes a romantic pairing between Katniss and Peeta could do wonders for garnering public support.

After something along the lines of 75 minutes of establishing all of that and various scenes of training and prep, the Games begin. And that's where the film loses some steam. Sure, there are scenes of the protagonist being quite resourceful and bonding not only with her male companion but also a young girl by the name of Rue (Amandla Stenberg), along with the necessary kill or be killed material (including lots of violence, but shot and edited in such a fashion -- usually with quick edits and shaky handheld camerawork -- to keep the otherwise R-rated material down in PG-13 territory).

But there's little doubt that Lawrence's character will survive (even if one is not familiar with the novels, that's just a de facto given considering the plot), and the filmmakers could have greatly benefitted had they studied John McTiernan's masterful action pic, "Predator," for tips on generating suspense and building momentum. What's present works, for the most part at least in terms of moving the plot forward, but little of what's offered falls into giddy, "edge of your seat" suspense and thrills. I personally would have moved some of the proceedings out of the woods -- that setting does get redundant -- and into the ruins of some old city, thus necessitating new survival strategies and skills.

In the end, the pic is a little bit of "Predator" with a lot of "The Truman Show" and "The Running Man" (and the little seen or remembered "Series 7: The Contenders"). There's also some "Lord of the Flies," "The Deadliest Game" and "Logan's Run" thrown into a blender along with a young romance tale designated as bait for teen girls who often turn the likes of "Titanic" and the "Twilight" flicks into huge box office numbers. I'm guessing the same will be true here, but as I watched all of this unfold, I kept thinking the original novel probably did it in a better and more convincing, engaging and satisfying fashion. Decent, but not spectacular, "The Hunger Games" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 19, 2012 / Posted March 21, 2012

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