I've been hugging myself practically all weekend.
The first story in "The Hunger Games", based on a trilogy of hugely-popular young adult sci-fi novels by Suzanne Collins, introduces us to Panem, a dystopian society set in a post-apocalyptic North America ruled over by the fascist Capitol. Like many of the scare stories and sci-fi thrillers in the books and films where it finds inspiration, HG plays like a parable meant as a warning to us if we should let the powers-that-be go unchecked.
From our ashes a police state has formed with twelve outlying districts. The society's leader is President Snow (Donald Sutherland), a white-bearded sage of a man who thinks deep and talks even deeper. He rules over Panem with the help of a great army and a terrifying surveillance apparatus not unlike a form of Google Earth run amok by government overreach.
Every year each of the twelve districts must nominate one male and one female "tribute" aged 12-18 to perform in "The Hunger Games". They're chosen in public lotteries held in each district with all candidates present. The 24 tributes are then whisked away to the Capitol where they are made-over, given coaches, and trained to both survive and kill every other candidate in a brutal and vast Appalachian landscape called the Arena.
The czar of the Hunger Games is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) known as the Head Gamemaker, who calls the shots in a control room made up of dozens of workers who help to manipulate the environment within the Arena and who edit all the footage into a reality t.v. show meant to pacify the masses to the evil of the games and of the Capitol by distracting them with candidates they of course root for to stay alive.
Our story begins in District 12 (Panem's poorest) where our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the eldest sibling in a family that lost their father to the war and which subsequently has left her in charge with mother sinking into a catatonic depression. In an extension of her Oscar-nominated work in "Winter's Bone", Jennifer Lawrence once again leads an entire family through crisis and brings a strong physical presence in scenes where she hunts game in order to feed her family.
On the day everyone is forced to observe the choosing of the tributes, Katniss doesn't hesitate to take the place of her sister Primrose, four years her junior and the unfortunate winner of the lottery. She's accompanied to the Capitol by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) the local baker's son around her age who helped her out once awhile back and who is the chosen male.
They board a great train that we learn can travel upwards of 200 mph (400+ kmh) that takes them to the Capitol, a total contrast from the rural outback of District 12. North America has gone the way of fascism, but at least they have high-speed rail, and the sequence showing them arriving at the Capitol is magnificent. Where the folks in District 12 dress in the simplest and drabbest of threads, the people of the Capitol wreak of decadence with their big, bold pastel colors, gaudy wardrobes and makeup. One of these characters is Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) their escort at the Capitol, another is Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) a drunk former-winner of the Games who plays mentor to Katniss and Peeta, while another is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) Panem's ever-present cirque-du-freak infotainment host-with-the-most with very loud blue hair and a persona resembling that of Perez Hilton.
To this point, HG does a mostly effective job of giving us the lay of the land as well as milking our dread and frustration at what is to come. The ideas are wild and topical, the implications horrifying. The premise is similar to the stories within the films "Battle Royale" and "Series 7: The Contenders", its society fixated on reality t.v. reminiscent of "The Truman Show", its notions of cold-blooded evil harking back to the classic read "The Most Dangerous Game".
But then the Games begin and the 24 tweens are dropped into the wilderness that is the Arena. I've read that the film "deals with important issues" and this is where I humbly disagree. I think the movie doesn't deal with issues so much as it buries or exploits them in favor of cheap thrills or easy sentiment. Indeed, HG presents issues like our obsessiveness for celebrity culture, government overreach, and of course, the moral complexities involved with minors having to kill each other, but at almost every turn in its second half, the movie cops out or conveniently sidesteps having to actually confront these things in a compelling way.
Jennifer Lawrence makes this watchable by her sheer will and inner strength. She has the unique ability to carry an entire movie on her back even when she's alone in a forest without dialogue. She projects an uncanny balance of intelligence, toughness, and wisdom. The relationship her character develops with Peeta is a touching one, but in the Arena where you may die at any moment, the fact that it's placed within the context of a love triangle cheapens it so as not to offend the sensibilities of Twilight fans who are having to sit through an apparently "smart" and "serious" movie.
After Katniss and Peeta, the character we bring the most sympathy to is Rue (Amandla Stenbeg) who appears to be the youngest of the 24 tributes and who helps Katniss in the Arena. I'm not giving anything away by reporting that the movie deals with Rue in a way that totally cops out from having to follow through on the dreaded thought of these three being the last to occupy the Arena.
Of the other twenty-one tweens, they are presented as obnoxious, ADHD-types straight out of Central Casting. They're shown mostly in backgrounds posing while at the Capitol, and then later as savages running loose in the wilderness shouting one stupid thing after another as though their dialogue was lifted from countless other of what Siskel & Ebert used to call "Dead Teenager Movies". We're given ample time to meet characters who inhabit the Capitol, including Lenny Kravitz as the personal stylist of the colorful Capitol flakes and 1%'ers, but the movie lacks any curiosity to get inside the heads of the youngsters who have been thrown into a situation that is almost guaranteed to kill them.
Where HG deserves contemplation and an honest confrontation with moral complexities, it instead gives us moments that clearly let itself off the hook from having to show any kind of self-awareness. What do they actually think and feel about killing? Why isn't death and suicide actually confronted in an honest way instead of being sugar-coated or exploited for effect?
"The Hunger Games" proposes big ideas but then is too timid in its execution of these things. That it's rehashed from other sources is fine with me, it's in the execution of those things where the movie stumbles and exposes itself ultimately as an elementary exercise in sci-fi.