The Hunger Games is based on a very successful young adult book series by Suzanne Collins. Lionsgate is really hoping this will be as big as Twilight or Harry Potter, and based on advance ticket sales, it probably will be. The studio is already talking about splitting the last book into 2 movies.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Catnip, er, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives with her mom and sister in District 12, which looks like the same location they filmed Winter's Bone in - a poor area of the Ozarks. This is in the distant future, after some kind of war has destroyed the US and a new nation called Panem has been established. The 12 districts once rose up in rebellion against Panem, and they were defeated. As punishment, every year each district has to send a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 - 18, to compete in the Hunger Games, which is a fight to the death and only one can win.
The contestants, or 'tributes', are selected at random during a lottery called the reaping. When Katniss's younger sister's name is called, Katniss volunteers to be taken in her place.
The Hunger Games are not just punishment for the districts. It is the most successful reality show in the country (possibly the only one). It seems like everyone in the country watches it non-stop, and the tributes hunt each other in a forest-like arena with cameras hidden in every tree.
If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Just off the top of my head, I think of The Running Man, The Long Walk, Battle Royale, and The Most Dangerous Game. Nothing wrong with recycling that story idea (just think of how many fantasy stories use The Hero's Journey), but they don't really do anything new or interesting with it.
The first half of the movie was not bad. They introduce a good character in Katniss Everdeen. It's refreshing to see a young female heroine who doesn't need to be rescued and is not sexualized. In fact, she is the one who usually does the rescuing. When the movie starts, we see her sneaking out of her district to hunt for deer. This establishes a few things. She's a hunter who knows how to use a bow, she is daring and resourceful, and her district is very poor. The fact that there is an electric fence to keep residents in shows that theirs is not a free society. I'm not sure the movie explains how she is able to get through the fence without being shocked, but oh well.
When her sister is picked as a tribute, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. This seems to surprise everyone, which makes us think that this has never happened. That's hard to believe. You would think that if a 12 year old is picked, their older brother or sister (if they have one) would volunteer to take the place of the younger sibling. You wouldn't want to watch your younger brother or sister be killed by an 18 year old.
Anyway, what follows is an hour or so of setup. Katniss meets Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). He won the games some years earlier, and he is going to serve as a mentor to Katniss and Peeta (the boy selected from the same district). They travel by train to the capital city, and it couldn't be more different from their district. Everything is futuristic, the people are happy and well fed, and everyone wears crazy bright colors and ridiculous hair styles. Even the beards are strange, especially the game master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley).
Katniss observes this like she has landed in another planet. We see everything through her eyes, and it made me wish we got more insight into what the character is thinking. She and Peeta have very superficial conversations. I would think this would be earth shattering for them. They have lived their entire lives in abject poverty, and now they are celebrities in this futuristic city.
They meet the other 22 contestants, and here is another problem with the movie - we don't get to know any of them. It would be really interesting if they became friends, knowing they would be expected to try and kill each other in a few days time. But I think only a few other contestants even get any lines in the movie. By the time the game starts, the only characters we know are Katniss and Peeta.
Once the games begin, the movie starts to have real pacing problems. I started to get bored real fast. There should have been some interesting kills, but except for a sequence involving a hornet's nest, they were pretty disappointing. And since the movie was destined to be PG-13 from the beginning, the violence is muted and mostly off screen. The most violent sequence is at the start of the games, when most of the contestants make a mad dash to a pile of weapons. But this sequence is edited in such a jerky fashion that we don't know who is killing who - not that it would matter anyway, since we don't know any of their names.
It seems like there is a fundamental flaw with this game. The contestants know that they are expected to fight to the death, and only one can win. But what if some of them choose not to fight? What if the last two tributes are on the defense? The best strategy would be to find someplace to hide and wait. You could easily end up with several players hiding and waiting.
Before the games started, the tributes were trying to get sponsors - people watching the game that could send them help while the game is in progress. But it seems like everyone is betting on the games, so wouldn't everyone who is betting send supplies to the tribute they are betting on?
As the game progresses, the game master changes the rules. When Katniss gets too close to the edge, he causes a firestorm to force her back to the middle. But he basically sends her straight to a group of tributes who have banded together, almost ensuring she will be killed. It seems like the game master shouldn't be playing favorites. If he can, then why not do that all the time?
Another stupid thing that happens is when they make the big CGI creatures appear. The creatures chase the last few tributes and all I could think is what happens if the creatures kill all the remaining tributes? The game master is hoping that one will outrun the creatures, but that seems like a big gamble.
Overall, the movie is not bad. It's just disappointing. In order to do this right, the movie should have been rated R. But the studio would never allow that since the movie's target demographic is teen girls. Which is also interesting - when Battle Royale came out years ago, it was controversial because the story is kids killing kids. But for some reason the Hunger Games books are just fine for teens, and so if the movie. Would it really make a difference if we saw more blood? Is that what determines whether its ok for a 13 year old or a 17 year old?