Dir. Gary Ross
A decade ago, who would have predicted the buying whims of the previously unheralded 13-year-old girl would be dictating the rise and fall of galactic Hollywood tent-pole blockbusters? Beginning in the early aughts with the phenomenon of Harry Potter, through the tortured love turmoil of Twilight (with the conclusive film yet to come), we now arrive at the latest would -be Y.A. literary box office boomtown, an adaptation of the first in Suzanne Collins' dystopian future epic trilogy. Striving to be a middle ground between Potter's genteel magic worlds and Twilight's overwrought sexual congress, the novel has struck a sizable chord with its target demo, selling millions of copies in the process and creating an absolute furor over the upcoming film.
The story is an amalgamation of a host of other elements: In our future world, the continent is renamed "Panem," and divvied up into 12 regions. As a penalty to a rebellious uprising many decades before, each new year a boy and a girl (ages 12-18) are chosen to represent their region in a thoroughly televised battle-to-the-death between all the participants. In order to spare her young and delicate sister, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers to represent her region, along with lottery-chosen Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). They are quickly whisked away by bullet train to the Capitol, where they are trained by a team of handlers, including strategist Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), media expert Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and costumer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) along with the other doomed kids. Katniss, an excellent archer and randy pioneer type (it helps that she hails from the region that most closely resembles West Virginia), has to learn how to earn "sponsorships" which result in extra benefits and supplies, while making sense of the "Survivor"-like politics that swarm around her and the other competitors, even as Peeta, her future advisory, may be harboring a serious crush on her.
There's a good deal more, of course. Eventually, the kids (known as "tributes") all end up in the battle arena, a large, wooded area completely controlled by the government, which is lead by a white-bearded evil dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, naturally) and his son, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, with far more impressive facial hair), whose high-tech immersion cameras and 3-D imaging capabilities constantly sway the outcome of the contest (and help to create the film's single most glaring misfire -- few people would fanatically watch a 'reality' series so clearly manipulated by its producers).
Collins' novel can be described as a combination of reality TV show, gladiatorial games and high school popularity contest. The marketing genius of it is in the way it captures both teens' natural disregard for higher authority and loss of identity ("If I'm going to die, I want to still be me," Peeta remarks mournfully on the eve of the games) and the kind of bitchy high-school social strata mongering that dominate the sociological order of things for kids everywhere.
It also offers up at least faint lines of other ideas: On the satire tip, we get a hilarious turn by a denture-preening Stanley Tucci, as the host of the wildly popular "Hunger Games" TV show (along with an oddly silent Toby Jones), while the denizens of the rich and extravagant city are all done up in ludicrously garish, neon-glowing fashions that would make Elton John think twice -- but it is on the two genres the film is working most hard to emulate that it fails to connect. As an action film, it's solely designed for girls who like to wear princess dresses to breakfast and eat rainbow pancakes: weak and often incomprehensibly shot so that you can't even be sure in what environment the fighting is taking place; surprisingly, the film is equally ineffectual on the romantic front, the existing 'romance' the two leads feels entirely trumped up, though, to be fair, that might be by design, due to the political nature of the situation.
In any event, it certainly doesn't help that the vibe between Lawrence and Hutcherson is stuck somewhere between sodden and completely implausible -- as far as chemistry goes, it's the equivalent of flat soda and a wad of used chewing gum. It is possible, I suppose, that this uninspiring teen love story is intentionally flat -- setting up the next installments, but by the end, the pieces certainly appear to be in place for -- oh, dear -- a frothy love triangle. We can only be so lucky. In the meantime, the film offers at least one encouraging sign for the collective taste of our nation's youth: One of the first unlucky contestants to go is the kid with the Justin Bieber haircut.