By Richard von Busack
Hunger Games (showtimes and tickets here) requires a pinch of amnesia. No young person wants to be told that their hero Katniss Everdeen and her futuristic gladiator games is a film that’s been done by everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Brooke Smith. And seeing the pastel wigs, fun fur, velour and Modern Roman décor of the elite of the future dystopia Panem, you may well ask “Where’s Captain Kirk?”
Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss, a coal miner’s daughter of a future Appalachia in District 12. She lost her father years before—thus Lawrence same problem with a tuned-out mom she had in Winter’s Bone. As mandated by the Treaty of the Treason, it’s time for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Two dozen 12-17 year olds are made to hunt and kill each other in a camera-laden bio-dome, supplied with poisonous plants and genetically engineered killer animals. A Frank Gehry-like metal cornucopia in the middle of a cleared field supplies the gladiators with the weapons they need, but even that lifeline is not a guarantee of safety.
The effete watch the bloody spectacle, and titter. The dictator of this futuristic city-state is Donald Sutherland’s President Coriolanus Snow, decked out as fastidiously as Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. He makes his indirect threats snipping roses in his garden, just as his fellow Canadian Christopher Plummer did in Syriana.
On one level, Hunger Games is TV satire blown up to vast-screen size. Stanley Tucci is succulently smarmy as a lavender peruke-wearing interviewer, whose oily over-familiarity and fake compassion is turned up to the point where the satire looks almost like revolutionary art. (If you seriously hate American Idol, Hunger Games seems especially pungent.) Populism is a tragically blobby thing, though: manicuring his rosebushes, the President talks of the dangers of Hope. You can count some tea-party types to read this parable as a take-down of Obama.
Ultimately Hunger Games is all about the ordeal, staged by the filmmakers in North Carolina forests. This is prime, exciting visual story-telling by Gary Ross: Jack London as if observed by John Boorman. He has a deft, intimate camera, using spots of indie-film blur when exhaustion gets to Katniss: the camera zeroes in on her for ultra close-ups when she’s cradled in tree limbs or aiming off a shot. At one point the determined curl of her mouth goes wall to wall on the screen. I once thought what people like best in a movie is a girl with a sword. It may actually be a bow and arrow; archery teachers are going to be swamped after Hunger Games becomes a deserved hit.
The popularity of the material drew a strong supporting cast: Woody Harrelson is marvelously larger-than-life as a sardonic, hard-drinking former winner. Amandla Stenberg is subtle and intense as Rue, the smallest warrior, and in some ways the bravest. And Elizabeth Banks is the hateful spokeswoman Effie Trinket, tarted up with what they used to call “bee-stung lips,” and dressed like an Audrey Beardsley concubine.
Even if you know your science fiction, Hunger Games is easier to take seriously than it may sounds. Some of this is the age of bad feeling we live in, and the increasing nastiness of survival tv shows. But the main reason is Lawrence herself.
There’s a hole in the premise of Hunger Games: wouldn't 75 (or so) years of government brainwashing have had some effect? Only one of the districts in these games is particularly Spartan in the old sense: there’s a ticklish line about how such martial people are forbidden dessert after dinner. But otherwise in this future, where the outlanders have reverted to manual labor, none of the teens are insanely gung-ho for the ordeal. (Surely some of these participants would have gone before the cameras, roaring and swearing they’d be the winner, and they’d grind the bones of their enemies and hear the lamentations of their women folk and so forth.)
Lawrence’s reluctance to kill is key to Katniss’s appeal. And thanks to her quiet, inward-looking performance in this role, we believe the transition.
As in a boy’s adventure story, the romance serves the plot, rather than the other way around (as in the dismal Twilight series). There’s a question of how much Katliss can trust Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who may literally be figuring out a way to kill her by stealth. Part of Hunger Games’ popularity outlines the real life fear underneath the attraction to boys: how they might exploit or betray a girl. And Lawrence plays this side of the drama beautifully, too. It’s a star-making performance, and Lawrence has created a powerful yet humane heroine in the form of Katliss. Our cinema needs such a figure desperately.