The Hunger Games, based on the first of the hit young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, posits a dystopian future where a select group of teenage boys and girls have to fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses. It's an altogether more nihilistic proposition than the Anglophilic derring-do of Harry Potter or the sub-Harlequin torment of Twilight, but it's also a fairly common sci-fi and thriller trope — seen in everything from The Most Dangerous Game to The Running Man to Death Race 2000 — now given a YA spin. (Even Kinji Fukasaku's Japanese-teens-killing-each-other-for-our-amusement flick Battle Royale, to which this will be compared when it screens next month at The Belcourt, wasn't meant for kids.) Ironic, then, that this blockbuster aimed straight at teens also displays the patience of a real grown-up picture.
It's serious stuff, to be sure. Jennifer Lawrence of Winter's Bone plays our heroine Katniss Everdeen, the impoverished 16-year-old super-archer who ends up as a contender in the so-called "Hunger Games" after volunteering to take her much younger sister's place. Josh Hutcherson is Peeta Mellark, the baker's son with a thing for Katniss. Together they travel from their gritty mining town, one of 12 enslaved districts, to the shining center of this futuristic empire to contend in these deadly games, which started out as a kind of punishment for the unruly regions.
The power centers in the film are often represented by elaborate costumes and set designs, with the upper classes looking like refugees from The Fifth Element. The competition itself has been designed by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), a preening artiste much fond of his elaborately fatal and endlessly malleable woodland playground, and the whole thing is in turn broadcast to the oppressed nation via the flamboyant hosting skills of Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), who comes off as a garishly attired cross between Jay Leno and that nauseating Andy guy on Bravo. Hanging over the proceedings is that there can be only one winner. Of the 24 kids chosen for the Games, 23 will have to die, horribly.
You would have thought this thing needed an action auteur, but the director here is Gary Ross, the man who gave us such middle-of-the-road (and middling) fare as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville. That turns out to be a good thing, however. He has the smarts to cut through the running and jumping and stabbing to train his camera intently on his actors. He seems to understand that a trembling face can do more to convey suspense than all the countdowns and soaring musical crescendos in the world (though, just to be safe, he does also throw in the countdowns and musical crescendos). The film, strikingly, takes its time, giving actors room to breathe, so that character choices make sense and we're rarely yanked out of the emotional context of a scene. That's not to say he skimps on the violence — the games start with a sudden melee of electrifying brutality straight out of the worst dream you ever had.
Unfortunately, what starts as a breathtaking moral puzzle settles all too quickly into a good-guys-vs.-bad-guys scenario. As the kids from richer districts come together to form a gang, the film clearly demarcates who deserves to die and who doesn't. Additionally, Ross doesn't quite have the chops to make the story be about some of the things it wants to be about. There are some meta-teases here, but they're just that — teases. When the powers that be decide they need to kick Katniss and Peeta's submerged romance up a notch, the couple is manipulated to kiss passionately. But Ross plays to the cheap seats here: the moment feels too genuine, lacking the kind of conflicted unease that, say, Peter Weir brought to The Truman Show's fake emotional catharses.
But The Hunger Games chooses not to dwell on these elements, perhaps realizing that it won't be able to deliver on these more resonant themes in what Hollywood likes to call a "four-quadrant" picture. (Full disclosure: I have not read the novels.) Except for one: The film does a better job at drawing attention to the way the contestants must play on viewer emotions in the run-up to the competition. When Peeta announces on TV that he's been secretly in love with Katniss all along, she revolts backstage. "He made me look weak!" she screams. "He made you look desirable!" retorts her trainer. At moments like these, in the film's observations about using sex appeal, vulnerability and charm to prevail in deadly combat, you realize that The Hunger Games is as much about the meatgrinder of our own world as it is about imaginary games in distant realities.