- 'HUNGER GAMES': Jennifer Lawrence stars.
In the "Hunger Games" vision of the near-future, a country that used to be the United States has been divided into a luxurious capital and ever-grubbier outlying districts. As ongoing punishment for a long-ago rebellion, the capital each year holds the Hunger Games, a sort of Olympiad-to-the-death in which a teen-aged girl and boy from each district is conscripted to compete — and in which only the final surviving competitor is deemed the winner. "Games" here is a euphemism (the movie could as well be titled "Dawson's Creek in Thunderdome"), but the sinister organizers, including bitter president Donald Sutherland, keep deploying the doublespeak motto of the Games, "May the odds be ever in your favor." Of course, when 24 people enter and 23 die, the odds are decidedly not.
From District 12, coal country, come Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who are whisked to the capital for a few days of pointers and media appearances before being pitted against the other competitors, some of whom have been training for years. Stanley Tucci is delightfully slimy as the TV impresario Caesar Flickerman, Wes Bentley is the conniving but never quite convincing Games director Seneca Crane (whose finely tuned beard has a real-life cult following of its own) and Liam Hemsworth is Katniss' woodsy best bud Gale. Woody Harrelson, as a boozy former winner turned coach, and Lenny Kravitz, as a savvy stylist, also turn up to help Katniss and Peeta.
Director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit," "Pleasantville") also pitched in on the screenplay. The gore is relatively light, considering; the gadgetry is pleasantly heavy, as when the show's control room begins manipulating the forest arena to nudge the games along. Most of what's here works plenty well, and what stumbles (some of the dialogue, an occasionally cartoonish plot) is easily forgiven because Lawrence (of "Winter's Bone" fame) plays a strong Katniss, gentle yet deadly with a bow, and you want to see her live. The pacing slacks at times, yet even after well more than two hours, it has to wrap up in a flourish, dropping its surviving characters on the porch of the onrushing sequels (Hungrier! Gamier!) and backing away from the action. It all feels sudsy by the end. Just dark enough to freak out the young'uns but sunny enough that mom will buy the DVD later.
The novel by Suzanne Collins was such a runaway hit in part because the themes are quite brutal within the young adult genre — there's a lot of kid-on-kid killing here, televised for the whole country to watch. If you're 13, the metaphors may not be apparent but they resonate at a gut level. Some may discern an allegory for youth sports; others may see war. The dystopian game-show theme felt prescient when Stephen King was publishing "The Long Walk" and "The Running Man," novellas in which losing the contest means execution. Young viewers raised on reality shows with titles such as "Survivor" may be more likely to take Collins' tale as an honest projection of a brutish future, their "1984." You just have to spot it a bit of leeway, as it's aimed most squarely at folks born around 1998.