Unlike Brake, in which the thrills are generated by people, the sci-fi adventure The Hunger Games relies heavily on CGI effects in a variety of visual formats—2D and Imax. Thank goodness it wasn’t in 3D. As a wearer of distance glasses, I loathe the revival of 3D, a silly gimmick for kids from the 1950s that blighted everything from Bwana Devil to Kiss Me Kate and mercifully died out with House of Wax. So I was grateful to watch The Hunger Games without the discomfort of two pairs of glasses, and don’t feel like I missed a thing. I can live without another flying spear.
This futuristic tale of teenage violence is so not my kind of movie that I approached it grudgingly, so imagine my surprise when I ended up being totally exhilarated and enjoying it immensely. Based on the teenage cult novel by Suzanne Collins that I admit, in my ignorance, I had never heard of, The Hunger Games takes place in some distant world called Panem that was once America before the Capitol was defeated in some unexplained, apocalyptic war. As punishment for the aggression, the wreckage was divided into 12 districts. Every year each district must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen by lottery, to compete in a nationally televised event called “the Hunger Games.” The purpose: a mass killing spree with only one survivor. Everyone shows up at the Hall of Justice to watch, just as the ancient Romans cheered the Christians when they were eaten alive by lions in the Colosseum. Part spectator sport, part law and part show business, the “games” are the World Series of the Holocaust of Tomorrow. The winner serves as a metaphor for honor, courage and sacrifice. What gives this 74th year’s event special TMZ appeal is that the two 16-year-old contestants from the 12th district are a pretty girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, from Winter’s Bone) and an even prettier boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, from The Kids Are All Right) who, in the process of becoming warriors, fall in love. The publicity value of two lovers fighting until one kills the other in order to survive gives the games a special edge that guarantees ratings. If she were still around, Oprah would have them on her show.
It’s a nasty but transfixing idea, and Shirley Jackson got there first with her unforgettable classic “The Lottery.” But still, the myriad details in the screenplay Ms. Collins adapted herself and the colorful direction by Gary Ross provide enough stimulation for three movies in the same genre. From the “reapings,” where the contestants are chosen by drawing numbers, to the lavishly appointed dining car on a train to the Capitol, where they meet their mentor, a cynical, drunken reprobate named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson in a long blond hippie wig), to the 100,000 cheering spectators gathered for the blood spill like the dress extras from Quo Vadis, we watch the teams with their costumes and pageantry, preparing for the slaughter. The master of ceremonies is a campy Caesar (played by Stanley Tucci as a cross between Liberace and one of the trashy Kardashians). Injected with a tracking system that reveals their whereabouts at all times, they are transported to the playing fields. Equipped with knives, swords, bows and arrows and other weapons of choice, they begin the massacre. In one poetic image, a butterfly lands on Ms. Lawrence’s finger in battle, the last symbol of freedom she will know. Forests of land mines, a lethal hive of poisonous wasps that cause pain, hallucinations and death called “Trackerjackers” and nuclear fires are among the many CGI effects unleashed like torpedoes. It’s all supposed to be mind-boggling, but excuse me. In an age of reality TV, when 90 percent of everything on the tube has turned ugly, vulgar and stupid, the movie lacks a necessary sense of creepy tension. It just looks like what you saw the night before on the latest installment of Survivor.
Still, it’s entertaining. And you find yourself rooting for the lovers, who literally kill themselves to stay together. The cruelty of the games results in a civil war, mob protests and a revision of the rules, allowing two winners instead of one, as long as they both come from the same district. Now all Katniss and Peeta have to do is find each other in the wilderness in time for a final fadeout. No wonder The Hunger Games is so popular with young readers. It has a message about the triumph of good over evil. It has romance, action, danger, expensive eye candy, flamboyant villains, teenage carnage, two attractive leads who symbolize honor, courage and sacrifice and it ends with a kiss. It might even end with a profit. The publicity machine is already cranked at full throttle. Or it could crash and burn like the ridiculous, ill-fated John Carter. Kids have invented new ways to spend their allowance money, and it doesn’t always end up at the box office.
Running Time 142 minutes
Written by Gary Ross (screenplay) and Suzanne Collins (screenplay)
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth