Was it wrong to expect something more from The Hunger Games other than pajama-party fodder? Suzanne Collins’ dystopian sci-fi novel - the first in a trilogy - was rife with potential for a bold, daring entertainment that blended dark satire and social commentary with big action beats and thrills. Instead, what director Gary Ross opted for is an earnest, plodding thumb-sucker – a sugar-coated pacifier to appease the screaming hordes. This is a science-fiction movie of the blandest, most generic order, technically adequate but devoid of any wit or insight or anything more substantial and lasting than the cool image of Jennifer Lawrence wielding a wicked bow and arrow.
In The Hunger Games, Lawrence is essentially reprising her Oscar-nominated role from Winter’s Bone: An adolescent girl tasked with providing for her family by whatever means necessary. She plays Katniss, a 16 year-old drafted into an annual competition in which teenagers from different social and economic strata are forced to fight to the death. The government-sponsored contest, which is watched on live TV by millions, is used by the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to keep the masses in check.
The screenplay, written by Ross and Collins and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), replaces the novel’s first-person narration by Katniss with banal observations about sheep-herd mentality and the vacuous news media and our cultural obsession with celebrity and the perils of reality television and blind American Idol worship. Doesn’t this all sound awfully tired? Hasn't this field been tilled enough?
With nothing to engage the mind, The Hunger Games aims for the heart. Katniss’ tentative romance with a fellow contestant, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is surprisingly sweet and touching – he and Lawrence share all of the film’s best moments – but there’s something rote and programmed about it, too. You never question whether things will work out for them, because this is an overly timid movie about a wild and outrageous concept. There’s no sense of danger or menace in The Hunger Games, which is a big problem for a movie that should feel like any of its characters could die at any given moment. The most exciting scene in the entire film involves the sawing of a tree branch. By the time the CGI monsters showed up, I was actively longing for the “Game Over” sign.
In fact, the most entertaining part of The Hunger Games is the first half, before the games begin, while Katniss and Peeta are being coached by a former winner (Woody Harrelson) or given fashion advice by an image consultant (Lenny Kravitz) or interviewed by an obsequious Piers Morgan-type (Stanley Tucci). The actors do a lot with their small roles, briefly cutting through the movie’s off-putting vision of the future (think The Fifth Element, only gaudier). Their performances are the only things in the film that don’t feel processed and sterilized and safe. With this cautiously violent parable, Ross is so mindful of not upsetting his target audience (or earning the wrath of their parents) that he ends up patronizing them instead: This is the mildest, shallowest variation on The Most Dangerous Game ever filmed, with the worst closing shot ever to grace the first installment in an intended franchise.
But the ultimate failure of The Hunger Games as a movie is not its derivative nature or its chintzy production design or even its lack of one single memorable set piece. The film’s biggest flaw is the complete absence of vision or imagination – anything that would justify the movie’s existence as something other than a way to cash in on the novel. The Harry Potter pictures brought visual wonder to J.K. Rowling’s intricate fantasy world. The Twilight series has been a smash because of the chemistry between its lead actors. The Hunger Games, though, offers nothing. If you’ve read the book, you should know that in the film, the leg heals. If you haven’t read the book, opt instead for Battle Royale, the controversial Japanese movie made in 2000 that has a near-identical premise and is (not coincidentally) being released on DVD for the first time in the U.S. this week. That movie takes no prisoners: The Hunger Games takes no risks.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hensworth, Alexander Ludwig, Donald Sutherland.
Director: Gary Ross.
Screenwriters: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray. Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins.
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik.
A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 142 minutes. Violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Friday March 23 at area theaters.