The Hunger Games REVIEW
Jennifer Lawrence takes aim at Twilight.
Release Date: 23 March 2012
12A | 142 minutes
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz
Ah, the kids. We all love the kids, right? When they’re not busy knifing each other, the youth are our hope for a brighter tomorrow. Unless tomorrow involves an insane dystopian society, driven round the twist by war, mass media and elaborate facial hair that is, in which case they’re just as screwed as the rest of us.
If they live in Panem, the broken future-nation that provides the backdrop for The Hunger Games, they’re in real trouble. Having risen from the ashes of a North America ripped apart by a rebellion, Panem’s authoritarian government established the Hunger Games as a way of reminding the country who’s in charge. A mass-media event which randomly selects two under-18 “Tributes” from each District and pit them all against each other in a fight to the death until only one remains, the Games are a route to fame and fortune for the winner, and a grisly televised demise for the rest.
Out in the wilds of District 12, a cash-poor, mineral rich mining outpost, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take part in the Games in place of her younger sister. Whisked off to the capital with fellow contender Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she’s transformed into a national celebrity overnight, before being thrown into a wooded arena to battle it out with her unlucky fellow players.
Now, this may not be the first time we’ve seen pretty young things pitted against each other to kill each other with pointed objects. But where The Hunger Games succeeds is in making a fairly well-worn SF concept fresh and utterly compelling.
Fantastic casting helps. Jennifer Lawrence is like a prettier, angrier Ray Mears, wandering around the woods in her sensible waterproofs, one woman against the odds. She’s the perfect Katniss, and not only because she looks good in hiking gear. Instantly iconic with her bow and arrow, she’s a thinking girl’s role model: strong-willed and self-reliant, she’s also as vulnerable and fallible as any 16-year-old. It’s a subtle, thoughtful performance and a completely riveting one. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, Katniss’s booze-fuelled mentor and a former winner of the Games, hits just the right balance of world-weary resignation and fatherly concern, while Elizabeth Banks bags most of the biggest laughs as Effie Trinket (escort for the Tributes). Stanley Tucci’s nightmarish talk show host is a blast, blue pompadour and all, and Donald Sutherland’s President is deliciously sinister.
Panem itself is a sumptuous, frequently bizarre backdrop, a frightening future where an endless parade of pampered ponces clatter round the capital in outlandish outfits while the provinces starve. It’s an absorbing, fully-realised world, rich in detail and bolstered by well-deployed effects. Director Gary Ross takes his time introducing Panem, steering clear of clunky exposition and instead allowing the stunning visuals to do all the work for him, and it’s an approach that pays dividends.
The Games themselves don’t disappoint when they eventually arrive, kicking off with a frantic teen slaughterfest before settling into a deadly game of hide and seek. The action sequences have a furious intensity, quick-firing bursts of kinetic madness that hammer home the desperation of Katniss and her doomed fellow Tributes. Violent, gripping but never gratuitous (nor particularly gory), the Games are every bit as nerve-shredding and exciting as they should be.
Yes, there are niggles: for those who haven’t read the original Suzanne Collins novels there are some confusing moments, like the three-fingered salute that keeps on cropping up. There’s a slightly unsatisfying romantic subplot, and you never quite get the sense that the whole of Panem is watching the games. We know that The Hunger Games is being set up as a franchise, but as a result the ending feels a little unsatisfying, and there are some frustrating plot points left hanging, such as the relationship between Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), an infinitely more interesting male counterpart than Peeta.
But none of this takes away from the sheer enjoyment of The Hunger Games. It’s an incredibly engaging story, told impeccably, with a moral backbone for good measure. Perfectly positioned to fill the gaping teen-blockbuster hole left by Harry Potter and the impending demise of Twilight, it’s a cross-generational victory – a movie aimed squarely at young adults that effortlessly transcends its target audience. It’s fitting that Katniss is propelled into the celebrity stratosphere as soon as she volunteers for the Games, as the same thing is about to happen to Jennifer Lawrence in real life. Although without all the killing. Probably.
Read our The Hunger Games interviews with the director and four of the cast.
Watch a clip from The Hunger Games.