The Hunger Games is most startlingly successful in its opening thirty minutes, when surveying District 12 of Panem, a coal-mining center where dirty people do dirty labor to keep the lights on in the Capitol, a post-apocalyptic paradise built upon a crater lake. The denizens of District 12 are slightly cleaner than the men and women of Winter’s Bone, and compared to the Capitol’s visiting Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), their situations are quite dire. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), for example, has taken control of her household in the aftermath of a mining accident that killed her father, leaving her caring for both her mother and her younger sister. Jobs are scarce, so she’s been forced to take up hunting. She’s quite good at it, but big game, like deer, have become increasingly scarce in an environment that’s been scorched by war.
War is very much in the fabric of The Hunger Games. Not only did it give rise to Panem, the massive, quizzically structured supercountry that arises sometime after the end of the United States, but a civil war between the districts and the Capitol were responsible for the creation of the games, which pit twenty-four young men and women, one of each gender from all twelve districts, in bloody, to-the-death conflict with each other. These twenty-four children, “Tributes,” as they’re called, serve two purposes. First and foremost, they’re a reminder to the twelve districts that supreme power lies with the Capitol, who participate in the Hunger Games by dressing-up and placing wagers. Secondly, the winner of the Hunger Games will bring fame and fortune to their district.
It’s a broken system, but one can appreciate the “I Am the 99%” ishness of the film’s opening moments, wherein Effie stands before a crowd of slackjawed, horrified, poorly-fed children and, with the aplomb of Mitt Romney saying he has plenty of friends who own NASCAR teams, tells the group she looks forward to seeing them die; all in the spirit of competition, of course. When Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen from the hat, Katniss volunteers for her and is thrown on a bullet train (funny how we get one of those in the post-apocalyptic future) with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who, according to his own mother, is as good as dead.
Once Katniss and Peeta are on the train, The Hunger Games becomes significantly less interesting. The two are scrubbed down, becoming two more pretty people in a parade of pretty people, most of whom give little to go on in terms of character. We learn a little about some of the other districts—one and two have been churning out Hunger Games champions for most of their duration—and are introduced to a cast of characters who, depending on their allegiance to Katniss, are flamboyant and one-note, or somewhat nuanced. The people running the games include hosts Caesar (Stanley Tucci) and Claudius (Toby Jones), producer Seneca Cane (Wes Bentley), and President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), who is exactly the sort of generic evil capable of manipulating things from the shadows across a franchise. Joining Effie in aiding Katness are Cinna (Lenny Kravitz)–a one man support group/fashion label—and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games winner who acts as District 12’s mentor. Of the characters here who aren’t Katness, Harrelson’s is the most well-drawn, a jaded man who finds no pleasure in the Hunger Games, but who nevertheless comes to like his charge.
The Hunger Games themselves are effectively a long, drawn-out battle sequence, where most of the people involved end up slaughtered off-screen. Katniss has been advised to survive on her wits rather than join the mad rush for a weapon at the start of the games, and that’s exactly what she does, taking off for the woods with a backpack and a rope. She’s been cautioned that exposure and the lack of water and food are just as likely to kill her as the other children, but the weather’s temperate, water is plentiful, and nobody participating looks to be starving. The threats she faces in there are two-fold: The large hunting party that’s formed specifically in an effort to kill her (she’s the strongest one in the group), and the CGI machinations of Seneca Cane, who artificially generates a fire and sics mutated beasts on Katniss to keep the show rolling.
Despite this, the Hunger Games portion of The Hunger Games feels momentum-less, hampered at turns by Katniss’ alliance with Rue (Amandia Stenberg), a little girl (seven or so) whose death sparks a riot in District 11, and a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who is forced to watch the events play out on TV. Rue’s death, obviously, is meant to be a huge moment in the film, but beyond her looking practically angelic pre- and post-martyrdom, she simply isn’t developed well enough within the parameters of the movie. It’s sad to see her die like it’d be sad to see any child get a spear stuck through them. The love triangle seems, at best, a concession to those who find Edward/Bella/Jacob the enduring romance of our time. It is built upon quick pecks on the cheek by Katniss and Peeta—who may be playing the folks in TV land for donations of soup and salve—and distressed looks from Gale, who is stuck in District 12 watching Katniss’ family.
What I like most about these scenes is the way director Gary Ross has decided to shoot them, in a style that straddles the line between old-school action cinematography and the currently in-vogue shaky-cam. The resulting scenes of violence are appropriately chaotic while remaining easy to follow. His pacing is off—at two hours and twenty minutes, parts of the film feel decidedly overstuffed while leaving other areas critically, frustratingly underdeveloped—but one gets the idea that many of The Hunger Games‘ decisions were made in an effort to appease the book’s massive fanbase. That’s not to say that the film is accessible only to fans of the novel. Unlike the Twilight series, which requires a person who hasn’t read the books to have either an almanac or a very knowledgeable friend, The Hunger Games is quite inclusive. It’s easy to see how some characters, particularly Rue, may benefit from the written word, but the film very consciously reaches out to new fans and does so successfully.
Frustratingly, The Hunger Games isn’t tremendously ambitious in scope, despite playing in the same sandbox as movies like Blade Runner and Metropolis. While the comparison may not be fair, most dystopian films use their future regimes and the inherent divide between squalor and excess to examine a problem eating away at our society. Those concerns are at the fringes of The Hunger Games, its kill-or-be-killed ethos hardly a breath of fresh air. The film squanders every chance it has of being challenging material, not even stopping to ask what Katniss would do if her and Rue were the last two left standing, and the dynamics of Panem society—one infers a kind of loose caste system, based on district—are left wholly untouched. Even if future sequels delve into that subject and give Katniss some tough decisions, I suspect the franchise will still leave me with two questions: 1) Nuclear holocaust be damned, at what point in the future do we begin naming people after American Gladiators? 2) Where have all the ugly people gone? Starvation, after all, isn’t pretty.
The Hunger Games. Directed by Gary Ross. With Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Stanley Tucci (Caesar), Toby Jones (Claudius), and Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow). Released March 23, 2012, by Lionsgate.