Filmmakers have become adept at bringing us the end of the world: zombies, plagues, natural disasters, Biblical wrath, comic-book doom and other such grim whatnot. The Hunger Games brings something new to the “post-apocalyptic dystopia” sub-genre of sci-fi: A world redeemed by teenage sincerity.
It is not a promising development.
Sometime after the end of America—nuclear war is invoked, though no evidence of its inevitable aftermath is offered—our continent is divided into large “districts” ruled by citizens of an iron-fisted Capitol. We are introduced to the sad, gray people of the Appalachian district, downtrodden peasants who meekly dig coal and subsist on squirrels and such. Not all district dwellers are “sheeple,” however; some are stout-hearted young folks like Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and, especially, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). In addition to comically mellifluous names, these teens have strength, youth and hope—and a desire for a love that will transcend a life of drudgery and cat eating.
The wise rulers at the Capitol know all about such youthful enthusiasms, and so have an annual ritual—the Hunger Games—in which each of the 12 districts offers up two kids, a boy and girl ages 12 to 16, to participate in a nationally televised fight to the death. This is supposed to have a properly repressive effect on rebellious impulses. In Katniss and Peeta, however, who become contestants from coal country as the story begins, these city slickers don’t know what they’re up against.
Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) grants great weight and sympathy to the neediness and suffering of his teen leads; he does a great job of making sure Katniss’ struggles are presented with an almost religious reverence (Saint Katniss of the Woods). The garishly tinted, coiffed, and decked-out denizens of the Capitol are, in contrast, shallow, effete, effeminate, dissolute and thoroughly evil, as self-absorbed as a gaggle of cake-eating French aristocrats before the revolution. That, of course, makes them a hell of a lot more fun to be around than the heroes. Who could resist Elizabeth Banks daintily spitting platitudes as the unctuous, pink-haired functionary Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson’s drunken insolence as Katniss’ mentor Haymitch Abernathy (gah, these names); and the wickedly dry Donald Sutherland as President (pure as?) Snow, murmuring not-so-veiled threats as he trims his rose bushes.
Ross’ shaky camera moves are great for capturing close-up scenes of teen angst, but he has no corresponding visual strategy for suggesting a hellish world of misery and doom. I gave up trying to figure out why Katniss did anything; credit Jennifer Lawrence’s action-hero moves for making her character’s vague motivations seem unimportant (and giving archery, of all sports, some cache). The games themselves don’t make much sense, and they are not bloody enough. But there is young romance, bravery, noble sacrifice—and the prospect of a love triangle to be explored in the sequels.