The Hunger Games
IN THE much-anticipated The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss, a coal miner's daughter in a future Appalachia, located in the cryptically labeled District 12. As mandated by the Treaty of the Treason, it's time for the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
Two dozen 12–17-year-olds are made to hunt and kill each other in a camera-laden bio-dome, complete with poisonous plants and genetically engineered animals. A Frank Gehry–like metal cornucopia supplies the gladiators with the weapons they need, but even that lifeline is not a guarantee of safety. The effete watch and titter; the dictator of this futuristic city-state is Donald Sutherland's President Coriolanus Snow, snipping roses in his garden, just as his fellow Canadian Christopher Plummer did in Syriana.
On one level, The Hunger Games is TV satire blown up to vast-screen size. Stanley Tucci is succulently smarmy as a lavender-peruke-wearing interviewer, whose oily overfamiliarity and fake compassion are turned up to the point of what looks, in this context, like revolutionary art. (If you really hate American Idol, The Hunger Games seem especially pungent.) Populism is a tragically blobby thing, though. Working in his garden, the president talks of the dangers of hope. You can count some Tea Party types to read this parable as a take-down of Obama.
Ultimately, the film revolves around the ordeal, shot in North Carolina forests. This is prime, exciting visual storytelling by director Gary Ross. He wields a deft, intimate camera, with spots of indie-film blur when exhaustion gets to Katniss—the camera zeroes in on her for ultra-close-ups when she's cradled in tree limbs or aiming a shot. I once thought what people like best in a movie was a girl with a sword. It may actually be a bow and arrow; archery teachers are going to be swamped after this becomes a deserved hit.
The popularity of the material has drawn a strong supporting cast: Woody Harrelson is marvelously larger-than-life as a sardonic, hard-drinking former winner; Amandla Stenberg is subtle and intense as Rue, the smallest warrior; Elizabeth Banks is hissable as the hateful spokeswoman Effie Trinket, tarted up with what they used to call "bee-stung lips" and dressed like an Aubrey Beardsley concubine.
Even if you know your science fiction, The Hunger Games is easier to take seriously than it may sound. The main reason is Lawrence herself. It's a star-making performance, and she's created a powerful yet humane heroine, in a cinema that needs such a figure desperately.
PG-13; 142 min.