In the court—or, in this case, on the court of public opinion, the film version of The Hunger Games has already won. The young-adult novel's legion of fans, young and old, has largely embraced the casting and preview footage doled out by Lionsgate (ever after the Twilight studio), culminating in reportedly record-breaking ticket pre-sales.
Even those totally unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins' book may find Gary Ross' film somewhat less than suspenseful: the intensity has been found more in the publicity blitz (are you Team Gale or Team Peeta?) than in the film it promotes. But if The Hunger Games on screen doesn't exactly catch fire (as does its hero Katniss Everdeen), its savvy pop culture mash-up and the charge of teens in life-and-death peril remain intact.
In a retro-futuristic dystopia, the one-percenters long ago crushed the revolt of the ninety-nine-percenters. The rule of fear hinges largely on "the Hunger Games," an annual compulsory lottery (thank you, Shirley Jackson) that demands twelve to eighteen-year-old "tributes" to submit to a televised death match. Two weeks, twenty-four contestants, and only one victor allowed to walk away alive.
Two contestants come from each of twelve districts; when the District 12 lottery demands twelve-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), her sixteen-year-old sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) dramatically volunteers to take Prim's place. It's the first of many dramas—all, in some sense, manufactured—that characterize the Romanesque circus of the Games.
From their rural, grey, utter impoverishment, Katniss and male draw Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) find themselves thrust into the colorful, unimaginable decadence of the Capitol, where privilege and ostentation go hand in hand. This world is embodied by flittering escort Effie Trinket (a zanily outfitted Elizabeth Banks) and maniacally happy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), but two of the adults show sympathy for the teens: personal stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and official mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic former champion.
Oddly, the early scenes laying this groundwork tend to be considerably more lively than the 74th Annual Games themselves, a sign of Ross' lack of experience as an action director and the film's squeamishness when it comes to depicting the story's gruesomely violent side. The battle scenes are blurs, shot on the choppy waves of shaky-cam and rendered yet more choppy by editors making the best of the footage (including Oscar-winning local hero Stephen Mirrione).
Happily, Collins' characters and universe are a darn sight more interesting than those of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Straight-arrow-shooting Katniss makes a compelling feminist hero, and Lawrence's emotionally resonant performance delivers. Though a bit hobbled by his character's relative ambiguity, Hutcherson sells Peeta's whip-smart media savvy and his romantic vulnerability. For, like Twilight, The Hunger Games incorporates a swoony romantic triangle amongst TV-anointed "star-crossed lovers" Katniss and Peeta, and Katniss' hulking hometown sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
The Hunger Games is a little bit The Most Dangerous Game, a little bit Lord of the Flies, a little bit The Truman Show, and a whole lot Battle Royale, the Japanese novel-turned-film about teens forced to battle to the death. The latter film's boldness overshadows Ross' work, but The Hunger Games' striking production design goes a long way, and the story could be a conversation starter for families about the voyeurism and willing manipulation of the American viewing public.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Lionsgate brings The Hunger Games to home video in a snazzy 2-Disc Blu-ray + Digital Copy special edition. A/V specs are excellent: the vibrant and clear image catches the eye with vivid color representation that's true to the heightened reality of the source material; the contrast can be inconsistent, with blacks not always as sharp as could be, but on the whole, this is a successful, pleasing hi-def transfer of a tricky, high-motion film. Certainly, one couldn't ask for more from the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio mix, which is capable of subtle dialogue and pindrop ambience, as well as blistering sonic assault when it's showtime or game time; music is full-bodied, and the LFE is playing with power, sending thrums and blasts through your home theater.
First, with Disc One, Lionsgate wants you to know that your Hunger Games set is, like, totally tricked out for all platforms. "Metabeam Smart Remote" (:31, HD) explains a smartphone app to expand one's interactive viewing experience, while text screens explain "BD Touch," a "second-screen" experience wedding BD Live and Metabeam and DTS-HD Master Audio Sound Check tests your audio setup.
Disc Two kicks off with the feature-length making-of documentary The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games (2:02:00, HD), in eight parts. Everything you wanted to know about making The Hunger Games and weren't afraid to ask gets covered here: adapting Suzanne Collins' novel (and her participation), assembling the filmmaking team and cast, pre-production (including conditioning and training), production, post-production (especially editing with a rating in mind), marketing and the film's reception.
In Featurettes, you'll find "Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and the Hunger Games Phenomenon" (14:05, HD) with Scholastic Books' David Levithan; "Letters from the Rose Garden" (9:08, HD) with Hollywood liberal lion Donald Sutherland holding court about the film's political relevance and his own decision to participate; "Controlling the Games" (5:50, HD), about the Games Center element; "A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell" (14:31, HD); "Preparing for the Games: A Director's Process" (3:00, HD), a brief explanation of going from pages to footage; and the complete "Propaganda Film" (1:34, HD).
Lastly, a Marketing Gallery serves up "Sneak Peek" (1:08, HD), "Theatrical Trailer" (2:39, HD) and "Second Trailer" (1:12, HD), as well as a Poster Gallery and a Photo Gallery.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer