For better or worse (worse), The Hunger Games has been hyped as the new Twilight. Both are based on super-popular Young Adult book series, are built around young female protagonists, and have inspired dedicated fan bases.
But what separates The Hunger Games and Twilight is that, unlike the latter, The Hunger Games can be appreciated on a completely un-ironic level. And maybe it’s just because I walked in with Twilight as my reference, but I was surprised to find myself completely interested by and invested in The Hunger Games.
Though it’s not as overwrought as Twilight’s,the bordering-on-Sci-Fi Hunger Games does have quite a concept behind it. It takes place in a dystopia that functions around an annual event in which 24 teenagers from the destitute districts of an unspecified country, randomly picked by lottery, are thrown against each other in a battle to the death. To the victor comes glory and riches, to everyone else comes a publicly televised and most likely gruesome murder.
This elaborately cruel event was formulated as a way to keep the poorer districts from rebelling, as they did nearly a century ago; but since its inception has become a point of extreme interest for the richer districts.
(Think Bullfighting – if the bulls were replaced by children, and the sport were more popular than the NCAA Basketball Tournament.)
Such fate befalls our main character, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), when she volunteers in order to keep her 12-year-old sister, who was selected to represent their district, from an almost certain death. Lawrence, who made a strong first impression as the lead in Winter’s Bone, forgoes playing a more typical heroine. Without Lawrence in the role, the intentionally sterile film would be impotent. Her Katniss is strong but shy, sharp but unsure. Lawrence’s work establishes The Hunger Games as not just another action film, and furthers the prepostery of her story while somehow supporting it.
The film in general takes a similar approach to its setting. While there are certainly moments that be could dialed back into something less distractingly unreal, it treats its absurd set-up with a surprising amount of subtlety. The bad guys are casual in their badness, using ignorance over malevolence as their prime motivation. And the sparse but ornate art direction lets frivolity reign in the richer districts – presumably having taken advantage of the poorer ones – instead of any distinct immorality.
Once the actual, titular games begin, when Katniss is thrown into a manufactured forest stuffed with hidden cameras and unseen flamethrowers, the film really gets going. On her own or with alliances, the desperation of Katniss’ situation is authentic and scary. Two hours in, knowing there were only fifteen minutes left, I found myself thinking I could go for another hour of the on-screen sport.
That I wanted for an already long film to keep going into overtime says a lot. But then again, that a mainstream pop culture event as notable as The Hunger Games can have this much bite is saying even more.