Saturday, September 22, 2012

Short Take: The Hunger Games (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Gary Ross’ film version of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ terrific dystopian adventure novel, is dull and unimaginative. The script, credited to Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray, sticks close to the book. In the North America of an unspecified future, the nation is divided into twelve districts and a capital city. Every year, each district must send a teenage boy and girl as tribute to the capital. The teens are to participate in the Hunger Games, a reality TV competition in which they are to hunt each other and fight to the death. The victor is the last one left alive. The story’s heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 16-year-old who volunteers to save her younger sister. She has two goals in the competition: the first is to survive and win, and the second is to do so without losing her humanity. One might think the material a natural for an exciting movie thriller. However, Ross doesn’t shape the scenes for effect, and the story lacks momentum onscreen. The competition section, which takes up most of the second half, is especially disappointing. The action gets lost in the restless camerawork and disjointed editing. That said, there probably wouldn’t have been much suspense even if the action had been clear. Ross doesn’t do much to introduce the other players in the competition, so the viewer has no idea what the heroine is up against. He isn’t telling an adventure story so much as he’s providing a series of cinematic illustrations of the novel. He did put together a good cast. Jennifer Lawrence has considerable gravitas in the lead--more than enough to get the viewer past her being physically wrong for the role. (That tall, strapping build may say action heroine, but the lumbering way she moves sure doesn’t.) Woody Harrelson is perfect as her alcoholic mentor for the games, and Donald Sutherland is so perfect as the capital’s sinister, autocratic ruler that he’s practically an archetype. The other actors, including Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, and Wes Bentley, are uniformly strong. The cinematography, art direction, and costume design are solid, too. Ross seems to have had everything he needed to make an entertaining film. What’s missing was the vision and craft for pulling it off.

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