The Hunger Games ✮✮✮

Orwellian Puppy Love

by Glenn Lovell

You certainly can’t beat the timing. Or Catnip’s ‒ rather, Katniss’s ‒ fiery second-act entrance. Nosiree. No sooner than the Harry Potter franchise wraps, along comes Lionsgate with a promising replacement for the 12- to 18-year-old demographic that grew up with Hogwarts’ Class of 2011 and is now ready to graduate to something a bit more politically savvy and realistic.

This young adult audience will undoubtedly cheer on the huntress heroine of “The Hunger Games,” taken from the first installment in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger trilogy. Jennifer Lawrence, who resembles a young Renée Zellweger, plays Katniss Everdeen. It’s bull’s-eye casting. Lawrence, you’ll recall, caught everyone’s attention as the flinty mountain lass in “Winter’s Bone.” She mines that same maddening tenacity for her new role. When riled, her Katniss is a force to be reckoned with. Her pre-games chariot entrance is, in a word, h-o-t. She enters the arena trailing flames

Strategizing: Lawrence and Hutcherson

Befitting its ready-made fan base, “The Hunger Games” movie registers as a Junior Scholastic spin on “Lord of the Flies,” “Battle Royale,” “Logan’s Run” and other post-apocalyptic allegories. And like the Collins’ novel, co-adapted by the author herself, the film benefits from its many obvious references to today’s glut of reality-TV shows, such as “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.”

It’s not a dystopian epic on the order of, say, Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” ‒ director Gary Ross can’t quite decide if he wants to be satirical or serious, cynical or puppy-love coy ‒ but it does make for compelling viewing, especially as the clock ticks down to the start of the teen version of gladiatorial combat. Though hobbled by a restrictive PG-13 rating, which reduces much of the action to quick-pan blurs, Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) serves the material well enough and seldom condescends to his target audience.

“THG” takes place in what was once the United States, 74 years after a bloody rebellion known as The Uprising. It’s a “new era,” a time of affluence (for the chosen few) and state-mandated peace. We’re in District 12, an Appalachian mining community, on the eve of The Reaping, an annual lottery eerily reminiscent of both Shirley Jackson and the Holocaust. A boy and girl between the age of 12 and 18 are to be selected to join 11 couples from outlying districts to fight to the death for the delectation of the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Besides the obvious pluses, the last person standing becomes a national hero with the attendant perks, which, from all appearances, translates to “all the French pastries you can consume.”

Primrose (Willow Shields), Katniss’s little sister, and the baker’s timid son, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are the lucky winners. No sooner than Primrose make for the stage, Katniss shouts, “I volunteer as a tribute!” So it’s off to the Capitol for the two locals, who fear getting too close because soon they’ll be matched in armed combat. Their mentor is the legendary, now usually inebriated, former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, sporting Dutch boy wig). Haymitch’s morale-boosting advice: “Embrace the probability of your imminent death.”

Katniss and Peeta quickly learn that the competition has as much to do with personality and politics as fighting skills. Playing to the crowd is how you rack up bonus points, which translate into parachuted-in “gifts” (healing balms, weapons ‒ whatever you need at the moment). Thanks to their spectacular pyrotechnics — engineered by their personal stylist (Lenny Kravitz) ‒ Katniss and Peeta make quite an impression on the event’s organizers and Master of Ceremony (Stanley Tucci under blue bouffant). But will this be enough to take on Cato, Marvel and the other obvious ringers, who soon form an alliance?

And so the scene is set for The Games, which unfold deep in the forest (actually the wilds of North Carolina) and are monitored and manipulated by a control center to ensure ratings. The fights to the death make use of daggers, swords, landmines, genetically engineered wasps and, Katniss’s weapon of choice, hunting bow. The televised combat is meant to curb aggression among the populace. In a cliffhanger set up to next year’s sequel, it has the opposite effect, it foments rebellion.

Ross and his army of designers do an impressive job of visualizing Collins’ retro-futureworld. CG is used sparingly on a sleek, high-speed monorail and the Capitol cityscape; outlandish wigs and clown collars evoke the spirit of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. The music by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard  mixes tinkling chimes and Irish folk themes. Where Ross trips up is in the editing and handheld camerawork. The opening sequences are so jarring, they’re off-putting and hard to follow. And later, in an effort to appease Big Brother (the MPAA ratings board), Ross renders the action footage all but unintelligible.

Our advice for future installments: Keep the camera on Lawrence and trust in your young target audience.

THE HUNGER GAMES ✮✮✮ With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Gary Ross; scripted by Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray from the Collins novel. 142 min. PG-13 (for combat violence and grisly makeup effects)

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