The Hunger Games – 4.5 stars

Riveting, though a little soulless, this dystopian thriller mixes some Lord of the Flies with Logan’s Run and The Running Man.  It is anchored by Jennifer Lawrence’s strong and touching performance (Lawrence was deservedly nominated for best actress in Winter’s Bone). 

It is the future.  The “haves” live in splendor, wealth and fashion, while the “have nots” reside in 1 of 12 poorer districts, which, at some point, rebelled against the central authority.  As s punishment/control mechanism, the central authority conducts an annual Hunger Games, where 2 teens from each district are selected by lottery.  They are then sent to the equivalent of The Emerald City for training and gussying up as if they were to meet the great and powerful Oz.  Instead, they are offered up in an elaborate ritual, televised for the masses and announced by two Ryan Secrests (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones), wherein they are released in the wild to fight to the death.  Lawrence volunteers after her younger sister is chosen.  Traps abound, and aid can be given by wealthy viewers who “favor” their champion (for example, Lawrence is injured, but a patron sends her healing ointment via mechanical device as she huddles in a tree).  The orchestrator of the games (game master Wes Bentley and evil sage Donald Sutherland) can also tweak circumstances and change rules to amp interest and/or for political reasons.        

I was totally hooked, and the addition of a wisened and cynical Woody Harrelson as an advisor to Lawrence (he was a winner from her district and he is clearly scarred by the experience), as well as Lenny Kravitz as her charm/clothing consultant (the kids have to do a dog-and-pony show ala’ “American Idol” so the viewers get to know them) are substantial. 

The lack of background as to how a society engineering  these games came to be is problematic, and the film’s treatment of the powers-that-be is glancing.  There is also a fair amount of discomfort as you find yourself rooting for one child to kill another.  The New Republic’s Tim Noah high-handedly called it “morally repugnant” because the film “wants to have it both ways.  It wants us to register severe moral disapproval of a society that would require children to hunt one another as if they were woodland creatures. But—because it also wants to be an entertainment with a sympathetic heroine and some good old-fashioned suspense—The Hunger Games also invites us to root for the right person to win the competition by, um, killing other children.”  I think Noah is being a bit hysterical here, going overboard as to how the filmmakers want us to be repulsed by the concept of The Hunger Games.  He’s wrong; the games themselves are a brilliant vehicle so fantastical that having to expend energy on their moral condemnation is like insisting an audience object to Eastwood’s brutality in Dirty Harry even as he metes it out to the bad guys.  Who has the time to be so scrupulous?

But Noah identifies how the movie lets you off the hook by making a few of the combatants so loathsome you feel better about your bloodlust (“The nice (usually younger) kids, whom she tries to save, all get killed by others. The few she must kill are all nasty preppies apparently raised from birth to be smug, violent and cruel”).  

It would have been more honest to have Katniss kill someone neutral, if not sympathetic, but there are sequels to be had here.

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