Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

April 7, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read any of the books yet.

I’ve seen all eight Harry Potters and all four Twilights, and none of the 12 films could compare with the experience I had with The Hunger Games. I suppose the only reason I’m comparing them are because they’re all based on bestselling young adult books that have crossed over to mainstream readers, but The Hunger Games was just so much more up my alley than the other two — dark, gritty, violent and bleak, and with no sappy romances in sight.

Set in a post-apolcalytpic dystopian society, The Hunger Games is a yearly reality TV contest where a boy and girl from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a kill-or-be-killed contest where there can only be one winner (don’t worry, there is a reason for it). The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough girl from District 12 who makes the ultimate sacrifice and is thrust into this nightmarish world where she must use all her skill and wit to survive. The premise is similar to the Japanese novel Battle Royale (which was also adapted into a film) — I’ve read the parts of the manga version — but I certainly wouldn’t call it a rip-off.

Despite its running time of 142 minutes, The Hunger Games didn’t feel nearly as long. The set up could have been shorter, but it was executed brilliantly, slowly peeling away the layers as the true nature of the games is revealed to the audience. The genuine action doesn’t really begin until halfway through, but the tension is maintained and built up right from the beginning, and when the brutal and bloody games finally start, the jolt of exhiliaration hits you like a kick to the stomach (at least it did for me).

The Hunger Games would not have been anywhere near as good without the outstanding performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  Apparently Suzanne Collins, the author of the book who also adapted the screenplay, said Lawrence was the only actress out of the dozens that auditioned for the role that truly captured the character, no mean feat considering some of the other candidates included Hailee Steinfeld, Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Moretz and Emily Browning. In the end, it was the right decision to go with the Academy Award nominated Lawrence, who chanelled the inner strength of her character from Winter’s Bone to give bring Katniss to life. She dominates just about every scene in the film and it’s virtually impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Just compare that to the years of growing pains endured by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in Harry Potter before they became respectable actors, and the respectability that still eludes the likes of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner in Twilight!

Lawrence is backed up by a strong supporting cast including Josh Hutcherson (you might remember him from Bridge to Terabithia or Journey to the Center of the Earth), Woody Harrelson (who was a little weird at first but eventually found his mark), Elizabeth Banks (freaky performance), Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley (remember him from American Beauty?), Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz and Liam Hemsworth (in a surprisingly small role). And a special mention to Isabelle Fuhrman, who was horrifying in Orphan and is pretty scary in this one too.

If there are any complaints, it would have to be the shaky camera employed at times — though I must admit my annoyance was somewhat mitigated because it kind of served a purpose — and the lack of explanation for some of the mechanics of the games (such as how the “sponsorship” and “virtual reality” systems worked). The violence was  unfortunately not displayed very clearly on screen because it had to pass the censors, but I think director Gary Ross (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) did all that he could to maintain the raw brutality of the games under the restricting circumstances. The film also probably could have fleshed out the political themes strewn throughout a little more but I didn’t find it a big deal considering the target market.

On the whole, The Hunger Games is a compelling, thrilling and often terrifying action-drama that hit almost all the right notes. Given the impossible expectations it carried from the moment it was announced,  I think it did all right. Looking forward to reading the books and Catching Fire (the sequel) when it is hopefully released next year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Huge kudos for not releasing this film in 3D.