“The Hunger Games” more intelligent, distinctive than typical teenage-franchise fare

The best science-fiction works are the ones that, by reaching into a far-flung concept or world, serve as commentaries about the way things are with our own world. Think “2001: A Space Odyssey”s exploration of human progress, or on the other end of the tonal spectrum, “Brazil”s satire against the pedantic hair-splitting of bureaucracy. When one isolates “The Hunger Games” from all of the hype and hyperbole, it’s a proud and worthy entry into this genre trend, blending social relevance with an intriguing, thrilling premise. This the first part of a franchise whose popularity approaches “Twilight”-esque levels, with the distinction being that this stuff actually lives up to the hype.

Set in an indeterminate future, “The Hunger Games” is set in a world where, after a nuclear fallout, society is divided into 12 separate, run-down “districts”. Once annually, the government televises a reality show where two children per district fight each other to the death: dubbed, evidently, the ‘hunger games’. Only one can emerge alive. This film is the story of one such unlucky contestant, Katniss Everdeen, and her resourceful fight to stay alive, even as she competes with a childhood friend, Peeta.

Everdeen is brought to life by the insanely talented, beautiful Jennifer Lawrence. Continuing a hot streak of playing strong female characters, Lawrence crafts a great protagonist; a uniquely physical presence who commands the screen every second she’s on it. Playing a weird bunch of supporting characters include the superb Woody Harrelson, playing Katniss’s drunken mentor through the games, Elizabeth Banks chewing the scenery as the bizarrely-dressed, annoyingly-chirpy announcer Effie, and teenage Josh Hutcherson, who as Peeta shows impressive range and personality.

“The Hunger Games” takes a surprisingly lo-fi approach to setting up its dystopian world. While certainly present at moments, this is not a special-effects-heavy film, deciding instead to emphasize building its characters. Director Gary Ross takes a handheld approach that, while distracting during some action sequences, truly builds the dreary, dark look that the world requires. Given his (some would say low) budget of $78 million, Ross managed to create a convincing future environment with personality, texture, and realism. Props to that.

It arrives, too, with a more ambitious premise than most of its sort: the hope to make you think. Ross, and original author/co-screenwriter Suzanne Collins, aren’t particularly subtle in their usage of the games as a metaphor for the kind of senseless, barbaric reality television that we’re accustomed to. Their usage of kids in the midst of this, while a bit of a cheap ploy, certainly raises questions that other franchises wouldn’t dare approach: How much of our cultural programming is filtered through the government? Who holds responsibility for the show: the viewers, the programmers, or participants?

Where “Hunger Games” comes up a bit short is, admittedly, thrills in the visceral department. The film’s focus is not so much on action as it is character and commentary, and while I totally appreciated that, whenever the kid-on-kid showdowns came on-screen I never felt as thrilled as I should have been. Missing, too, is the kind of perverse promise a film with this plot would suggest: in a film where kids my little-sister’s age are fighting to the death, you think there’d be a bit more of a sense of…danger. With a few exceptions, the kids mainly morph into bland, sneering antagonists, not the genuine, scared people you’d imagine in such a scenario.

This film sets itself apart from most other cultural juggernauts not just for its intelligence: but for its passion. This is a film with a capital-M Message: whether its execution of it is entirely successful or, given the comparisons to 2000’s similarly-plotted “Battle Royale”, original, is unimportant. What does stick from this film is its aesthetic, its world-building, and the arrival of a major new character into feminist-film history: Katniss Everdeen, who kicks ass, shoots arrows and subverts futuristic governments better than most. B+

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