Friday, 30 March 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) - 3 1/2 STARS

"May the odds be ever in your favor."


DIRECTOR: Gary ROSS
STARRING: Jennifer LAWRENCE, Josh HUTCHINSON, Woody HARRELSON, Elizabeth BANKS

Following the end of the Harry Potter franchise and the impending finale of Twilight later this year, teenage fans of popular books will be looking for a new series of films to keep them entertained. Step forth The Hunger Games. With the summer blockbusters including Avengers, Prometheus and Dark Knight set to dominate the box-office, one of the year's unlikely hits already has odds in its favour with the viewing public particularly the youngsters who'll no longer be rooting for Harry Potter or Edward/Bella but instead cheering on new fictional heroes who don't face the challenge of wizards or werewolves. It's not quite the perfect first adaptation of a renowned novel series, but its Battle-Royale setting makes for a gripping and at times brutal ride where even youngsters are spared no mercy....

Set in a futuristic society, a rebellion against the state has led to twelve districts being punished by having to provide two youngsters/teenagers to fight in an annual tournament known as The Hunger Games. The tournament is a game of combat where 24 contestants fight to the death to be crowned Champion and ensure their district never suffers again. When youngster Prim Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected as the female representative of District 12, her elder sister Katniss (Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Joined by male contender Peeta (Hutchinson), they travel to the Capitol where they are tutored about their participation by former contender Haymitch (Harrelson), before going through an intense training program as preparation for the tournament. They are also presented as rooted-for heroes to the cold hearted and uncaring people of the Capitol who enjoy the violent escapades of The Hunger Games. Ultimately once they and the other 22 'Tributes' are released into the arena, Katniss looks to hide away from some of her more bloodthirsty rivals who show no sympathy towards any of the weaker competitors who fall early on as it becomes a survival of the fittest.... 

Director Gary Ross (who made the brilliant horse-racing drama SEABISCUIT) succeeds in making the first book of Suzanne Collins's series into a worthwhile adaptation and for anyone who hasn't the books (like myself), this particular film sets itself as one of the year's big surprises especially with its appeal to younger audiences. Despite a lot of pressure being on its similarities to Harry Potter and Twilight, it manages to steer clear of being completely sugar-coated as a romantic fantasy with hunky men (most definitely for the latter!) instead opting for a more refreshing and at times brutal flick with steady camera angles during the pace of the action. For a 12A rated film, it does hinge close to a higher rating with its moments of violence which are quite shocking especially when seeing it happen to young people such as one 'tribute' having his neck broken and another one suffering a horrific death via a swarm of deadly wasps. But amongst the vicious horrors that our young competitors face, some of them are only children who are plucked from their homes and thrown into an arena that takes away their innocence and leads to them having to survive no matter what. However our heroine's scenes with fellow warrior Rue are touching to watch during the intensity of the game showing Katniss's humanity towards others. The world of The Hunger Games is also visualised to perfection with its stunning imagery of a futuristic world with many strange vibrant costumes and use of makeup (Wes Bentley's beard one of the standouts!) to present the carnivalesque feel of the city and its people. Compare that to the lack of colour used to depict the struggling districts where Katniss and Petta descend from. And while something like Twlight relied on its glamourous stars to attract its teenage followers, Games succeeds in relying on a stellar cast of experienced though not huge names to assist the film in its appeal towards audiences. Jennifer Lawrence continues her rise towards Hollywood stardom with another complex and strong female performance as Katniss, one of the year's first big film heroes who protects anyone she cares for in order to overcome the odds. Josh Hutchinson on the other hand is somewhat overshadowed by his female co-star but still plays a character we can root for and has a stirring on-screen charmistry with Lawrence as the film progresses. The more experienced actors get to enjoy themselves with Woody Harrelson lapping it up as drunk but caring advisor Haymitch (he'll always be Woody Boyd from CHEERS to me!), Elizabeth Banks has fun as the absurd Effie Trinket underneath all that colourful, flashy makeup and Stanley Tucci very entertaining as the flamboyant show host Caesar Flickerman.

As with many, many adaptations of renowned books, The Hunger Games does have its faults in trying to get everything onto the big screen but having to make changes. Although I haven't read the book, I have learnt about the film's failure to really show character development. Katniss, Peeta, Rue and Cato all get the development but the other 'tributes' are mealy reduced to either being cold-blooded, selfish killers or sweet, unfortunate individuals with no background on them whatsoever which is what the book did well to look at. There is also the survival story which unfortunately has its similarities to the plot of BATTLE ROYALE as well as the Arnold Schwazrengger sci-fi thriller THE RUNNING MAN which may put people off seeing a film which relies on an almost similar theme. Finally the 140 minute running time does make the film drag in places and doesn't quite come across as the exhilarating CGI-invested film that everyone expected.

VERDICT: It isn't quite a game-changer for young audiences though it should keep them happy (not unless they like seeing people their own age getting killed) but Hunger Games does have you asking for more with its dark and thrilling narrative while Lawrence's Katniss stands out as the new modern day action heroine. Move over Bella....

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