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With: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Liam Hemsworth, Paula Malcomson, Kimiko Gelman, Nelson Ascencio, Brooke Bundy, Lenny Kravitz, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Latarsha Rose, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Karan Kendrick
Written by: Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray, Gary Ross, based on a novel by Suzanne Collins
Directed by: Gary Ross
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens
Running Time: 142
Date: 03/12/2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Starved for Entertainment

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling young adult novel, The Hunger Games gets by chiefly on raw, sinister suspense.

It begins in the future, in the 74th year of the Hunger Games, which were invented as a way to control the masses after an unsuccessful uprising. Two "tributes," a boy and a girl, are chosen from each of 12 districts. After some preparation, the 24 competitors are sent to the battlefield, where only one will emerge alive. The entire thing is broadcast and commented upon in hideous reality TV-style.

From District 12, tough, cunning Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) -- an expert archer -- volunteers, taking the place of her younger sister. Katniss' companion is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who harbors a secret crush on her. Their toughest competitors are typical, cackling teen bullies.

Though it's mostly made for fans, The Hunger Games doesn't seem to have been made by anyone in particular. The director is Gary Ross, who might have been chosen at random; he has nothing of this ilk on his resume. Perhaps nearest is the comedy Pleasantville, also set in a strange alternate world.

Here, Ross and his co-screenwriters appear uncertain as to how much information to impart. For example, the movie initially makes a big deal out of the tributes finding "sponsors," but drops the idea. Likewise, potential romantic tension between three characters is snuffed, perhaps in anticipation of future sequels. In the same vein, Ross's camera roams indecisively, rarely settling on anything.

Happily, the movie is insidiously effective in the way it captures the anxious terror leading up to the games, and then the unleashed brutality of the games themselves. This is partly thanks to Lawrence's mature performance, as well as Woody Harrelson's, as an emotionally damaged former winner and current coach. Additionally, the movie has a superb, creepy design, with costumes of bizarre colors that make the future look dreadfully plastic and frilly.

Yet The Hunger Games misses a chance that was eagerly taken by Kinji Fukasaku's remarkably similar cult classic Battle Royale, released in Japan in 2000. That masterpiece was pure, giddy exploitation, inviting audiences to have a good time and unexpectedly discover the subtext that these games are bad.

Slowed down and dressed up, The Hunger Games wears that message on its sleeve, leaving the fun behind. But to make up for it, the focus is now on suspense. Even the most stalwart viewers -- prior fans or not -- will be squirming in their seats.

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