BUSAN, South Korea — The Hunger Games is the latest film from director Gary Ross, who is most notable for his 1998 satirical drama Pleasantville and the 2003 horse racing biopic Seabiscuit. Much like Harry Potter or the Twilight saga (shudder, cringe), The Hunger Games has been adapted from a series of novels and comes with its own pre-set group of fans. Whether or not this film is a faithful translation of the literary trilogy is for the readers to decide. I can, however, state The Hunger Games is a deeply engaging film that could give some hotly anticipated summer movies a run for their money. Gary Ross is a serious director with a deft eye for characterization and dramatic nuance, and The Hunger Games is every bit an exercise in his abilities to craft an entertaining film that remains relevant to its themes.
The film is set in a dystopian future ruled by a dictatorship which, via a lottery, selects two young contestants from each of its twelve districts to take part in the "Hunger Games", a ruthlessly violent battle to the death in which only one survivor can be crowned champion. The themes tread the familiar waters of films such as The Running Man and Logan's Run, but the premise itself mirrors that of the Japanese cult-sensation from 2000, Battle Royale. Battle Royale is also based on a novel, the inception of which came long before The Hunger Games saw publication.
The comparisons between the two are unavoidable, and both deal with a scenario in which teens are forced to fight to the death at the behest of a government which implements an oppressive system of control. But where Battle Royale is more topical and presents an extreme, surrealist view of the violence that ensues, The Hunger Games is a more meditative and restrained look at the characters which populate a vain, fascist society that is oblivious to the sadistic cruelty of forcing young people to kill each other in a spectators “sport”. Both films have their positives and drawbacks, and both are definitely worth your time, though I issue fair warning that the violence in Battle Royale is gloriously over-the-top.
At the forefront of the superb cast is 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, whose work over the past few years has garnered well-earned praise and attention, most notably for her performance in 2010's Winter's Bone. Here the young actress masterfully seizes every moment of the 140-minute running time, lending a remarkable emotional anchor to Katniss Everdeen, one of the strongest heroines to grace the screen in some time. A lesser actress, working under a lesser director, would have cheapened the experience.
Rounding out the supporting cast are a plethora of young actors and actresses who never once delve into the realm of a "bad, inexperienced youth performance". The ensemble cast, with the best support coming from acting veterans such as Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson (surprisingly great here), Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks and even Lenny Kravitz, is above and beyond what we've seen in recent film adaptations of teen literature.
It's fortunate that Ross knows exactly what to do with his talent, and exactly where he wants his camera during moments of character introspection, giving the film a deliberate pacing that wouldn't seem out of place in a straight-up drama. Allowing the actors the breathing room to explore these characters in the first act build-up to the grand spectacle creates a palpable level of tension. There are no throwaway character moments, which is astonishing for a film that is classified as a blockbuster. Occasionally the film begins to run a little long in places, but these are very minor occurrences.
The tradeoff to the beautifully rendered characters and the eccentric art design of this very curious vision of the future is Ross's baffling decision to implement shaky-cam cinematography for the violent payoff. While Ross frames most of his film using steady-cam shots, the outbursts of frenetic action and chaos incorporate jarring camera movements and editing that wouldn’t be out of place in either of Paul Greengrass’s Bourne sequels. Given the epic scope of the story that is unfolding, it is extremely frustrating to find that the taut plotting is nearly ruined by indecipherable scenes of action.
Note that I say “nearly ruined”, because the scenes still work to some degree, and the characters always take center stage over the action. It’s tempting to reason that Ross is trying to “show violence without showing it” due to the fact that you are watching a bunch of youngsters kill each other in the most savage and vicious ways possible. Being overtly graphic in such scenes would result in an R-rating, which would immediately do away with 75% of the target audience, and that’s understandable… but there are other, far less distracting ways to neuter your action scenes. Hopefully the filmmakers listen to the chorus of complaints that have erupted over this aspect of the otherwise excellent film.
With the film grossing over $300 million domestically in just 17 days of release, there is no doubt that this is the start of a viable film franchise, translated passionately by director Gary Ross. This is a film that can ensnare and entertain viewers of all ages, and it is a superb piece of escapist cinema that you most definitely should not miss.
The Hunger Games
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks
Runtime: 142 minutes