Tuesday 20 March 2012

The Hunger Games review

The Hunger Games (12A/PG-13, 142 mins)
Director: Gary Ross
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

With Harry Potter having hung up his wand and the Twilight saga drawing to a close in the autumn, the desperate scramble for the next blockbusting teen-lit movie franchise gets underway with this adaptation of the first novel in the bestselling trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

It’s a bleak futuristic adventure set in a post-civil war North America that has been divided into 12 districts. From each of the districts two tributes are chosen, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, to take part in the annual Hunger Games, a battle to the death that takes place in front of a TV audience.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) comes from District 12, a place where people look and live like it’s the 19th century even though it’s many decades in the future. Food is scarce and she hunts and barters for the little she and her family have. When her young sister is chosen to represent the district, Katniss volunteers in her place and is taken, along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to the Capitol.

The Games themselves are a long time coming, but when they arrive it doesn’t then turn into Rambo but instead a chilling depiction of how easily people turn to savagery. The tributes have had a few days training before they're let loose in a forest - 24 will go in, 23 will die, with cameras all around to broadcast their every move.

A selection of weapons are available, but a better strategy is to find water and shelter. Some have been training for years and some form alliances, lending a disturbing gang element made all the more troubling because they're children. The violence is brutal and merciless yet restrained in detail but still the lack of blood doesn’t detract from the cruelty of the contest.

It’s anchored by a strong character in Katniss, matched by a fine, confident performance from Lawrence. Colourful support comes from Woody Harrelson, a former Games winner who acts as a mentor to Katniss and Peeta, and Stanley Tucci as a reptilian TV host.

With its potshots at the manipulation and venality of reality TV, and the voyeurism of audiences, the satire is never overdone, and even though any number of socio-political parallels are raised, none of them get shoehorned in at the expense of the drama.

It’s nothing new of course, covering ground already trodden in television satires or gladiatorial style action films for decades. But it brings together its influences in a way that’s mature, intelligent and compelling.

One thing it certainly isn’t is fun, though it’s not without its stirring moments. In truth it’s more like The Road than Twilight, grim and gritty and stripped of colour, at least until they get to the Capitol, where pastel-coiffed oafs live in luxury.

But it’s largely grimy and oppressive and so unlike typical teen fare, with no handholding when it comes to plot and, if anything, sometimes too economical with explanations. We learn that the Games are an attempt to keep the peace, but quite what the benefits are for the winner isn’t made clear and some will perhaps be left wondering just what the purpose of the Hunger Games is.

These may be questions that get addressed somewhere down the road, because this is going to be huge, and sequels are bound to follow.

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