Famished: The Hunger Games is Only an Amuse Bouche

City Pulse | March 20, 2012
However true to Suzanne Collins’s popular young adult source material novel, Gary Ross’s filmic adaptation of “The Hunger Games” is a dystopian thriller that falls flat — really flat. Forget that Collins herself co-wrote the screenplay with director Gary Ross and another screenwriter.

A puzzling pre-roll explains that society is being punished for an “uprising” that set off a war related to a redesigned American consisting of 13 Districts; the new country is called Panem. For the last seventy-odd years, there has been an annual competition wherein each district selects a “tribute” of a young man and a woman (aged 12 to 18) to fight to the death in a computer-rigged environment. The games serve as a ritual reminder of the overpowering military might that looks down on its citizens from above. Think “Rolllerball” (1975) without the scathing social and political commentary. As a dystopian story, “The Hunger Games” is underdeveloped at best.

A shuffled backstory involving an impoverished coal mining community in District 12 introduces Jennifer Lawrence’s destitute character with the cringe-inducing name of “Katness” Everdeen. The hokey name is like a cross between Candice and Catnip. Katness uses her advanced archery skills to illegally bring home game for her mother and younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) to share. She likes to go hunting with her boyfriend. Naturally, Katness is the better hunter. Happily, there’s no sign of any devastation from global warming in the lush forest where she hunts.

Stanley Tucci plays Hunger Games television host Cesar Flickerman. With a blue pompadour and gaudy sequin suit, Tucci’s flaming Caesar gives expository commentary, and conducts interviews with such society string-pullers as Wes Bentley’s Seneca Crane who answers to President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Seneca wears a strangely designed beard to proclaim his place as a villain with style.

The action begins in earnest after Prim is chosen at a public raffle — called the “reaping” — to participate in the Hunger Games in Prim’s stead. Katness steps forward to offer herself up as a volunteer tribute. She’s assigned a mentor who comes in the guise of one severely miscast Woody Harrelson playing Haymitch Abernathy. “Make people like you” is the message Haymitch stresses to Katness in preparation for her appearance on Cesar’s well-attended entertainment show. The “like” precept hangs in the air over the proceedings like a bad joke. Perhaps the author was spending too much time on Facebook when she wrote the story. Only by getting the masses to like her can Katness hope to secure sponsors that will help support her cause during the kill-or-be-killed competition. The winner is awarded with unlimited wealth.

Slack pacing, poorly developed subplots, shabby camerawork, and miscasting dog the movie. Incongruous tonal shifts disguise more than elucidate a bloated story with subversive aspirations it can’t fulfill. For all of Jennifer Lawrence’s charms — and they are many — the gifted actress is no competition for a wobbly script and weak chemistry with Josh Hutcherson, who plays Katness’s fellow District 12 competitor Peeta. The script demands that Hutcherson’s character be submissive to Katness. To that end Hutcherson’s characteristic golly-gee boy scout fits the bill. But as soon as a romantic connection is called for between Lawrence and Hutcherson crickets start chirping under the theater seats.

The story simply doesn’t pay off on anything it promises. Modern society is presented as a vacuous place inhabited by clowns. Wealthy idiots savor the entertainment value of watching 24 young people kill each other in an artificial environment controlled by a room full of computer technicians given to arbitrarily changing the rules on a whim. Forest fires and imaginary creatures are implemented to control the action on the playing field. Humans become fodder for an interactive video game. Everything about “The Hunger Games” is a rehash. If not for Jennifer Lawrence’s ever-commanding performance, there would be no redeeming value for a movie that goes on two-and-a-half hours too long.

Rated PG-13. 142 mins. (D+)

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