Anyone expecting the next "Harry Potter" or, worse, the next "Twilight," will be sorely disappointed by "The Hunger Games."
Rife with violence and layered with provocative subject matter and themes, there's nary a bespectacled wizard, flying car, talking hat or elf to be found. Most blessedly, "Games" is gritty and thoughtful, and devoid of vampires, werewolves and contrived, soapy teenage melodrama.
In fact, although based on a trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, this film is easily meaty enough to appeal beyond its target audience.
Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone") is a mesmerizing lead, playing Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old from the fictional country of Panem. Panem is a post-apocalyptic version of North America made up of an all-powerful, totalitarian capital city and 12 impoverished Districts.
Following a rebellion by a former 13th District some 75 years before the film's opening, Panem instituted The Hunger Games as punishment. The Games are an annual, televised competition in which 24 randomly selected boys and girls representing each District, ages 12 to 18, are forced to battle to the death within an artificial, highly-controlled, outdoor "arena."
The last contestant or "tribute" alive at the end is showered with adulation, riches and fame.
Director and screenwriter Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), working with Collins (who serves as co-screenwriter), weaves this premise into an entertaining, at times satiric, at times complex examination of issues such as classism, censorship, government oppression, violence, voyeurism, propaganda and resistance to authority.
Ross does especially strong work with pacing.
Admittedly, "Games" does prod slightly in its second half and might've benefited from some trimming, but, overall, its 142-minute runtime breezes by, and Ross never loses control or completely fails to engage.
He has a strong, talented young cast under his direction, too, who does gripping, impressive work considering the story's violent, emotionally-wrenching nature. Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Katniss' male partner from District 12, have compelling chemistry, creating a believable onscreen dynamic that's part adversarial, part companionable and vaguely romantic.
To a slight degree, "Games" suffers from deficient and clichŽd characterization. Worse, the ridiculously open-ended, unsatisfying conclusion plays like a blatant money-grab, leaving little doubt of a sequel ("Games" is sourced from a three-book series after all, and Hollywood loves a cash cow).
Still, whether adult or adolescent, viewers who can overlook the flaws won't be disappointed.
"Games" may be based on young-adult material, but it shares far more in common with 1987's "The Running Man" than it shares with other films aimed at the same demographic. It's a young-adult movie that assumes its target audience is sufficiently savvy and sophisticated to deal with grown-up themes, placing more emphasis on "adult" and refusing to pander or paint the world in rose-colored fantasy.
In the process, "Games" transcends its inherent, age-related boundaries and morphs into a movie for anyone who enjoys suspenseful, challenging, morally-ambivalent entertainment.
"The Hunger Games" also stars Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson.
Rating: Full-moon howl
Runtime: 142 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence - Not suitable for pups under 13 without parents
Rating System Explained: Yip = 0; Bark = *; Howl = **; Full-moon howl = ***; Lone-wolf howl = ****; Leader of the pack = *****
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011