Danger Games 

The newest Hollywood tentpole is more dense and compelling than most.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

The Hunger Games has a number of flaws, which will be enumerated shortly, but the take-away is it's a film of considerable entertainment value, with a fantastic lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence and more thematic meat to digest than might be expected from another big Hollywood tentpole.

The film is based on a young adult novel by Suzanne Collins. It features Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a tough girl in Appalachia forced to be the breadwinner for her family after her father dies in a coal-mining explosion. Katniss hunts wild game and cobbles together meals and household staples by bartering with similarly impoverished neighbors. Lawrence likely got the Katniss role because of its similarity to her part in the excellent Winter's Bone.

This is a futuristic Appalachia, however. We can tell because even though there's no running water, there are imperial overlords wearing ugly monochromatic attire reminiscent of some 1970s sci-fi cinema.

Now called District 12, the region is subservient to a distant Capitol that rules with an iron sense of humor. As punishment for a rebellion decades before, a boy and girl are chosen at random from each of the 12 districts and forced to fight to the death in a televised spectacle called the Hunger Games. Katniss is the girl representative from District 12, joining a boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, also giving a strong performance). They travel to the Capitol, get shown off for the TV cameras to immense ratings, and then enter the field of battle where only one can emerge victorious.

Stripped of its mythology, the premise is kinda asinine. So, a treaty was signed by defeated revolutionary leaders and it's both a punitive measure and also the greatest form of entertainment in the society? And it's such a stable system of amusing oppression that it has continued without interruption for 74 years?

But the mythology and characters are precisely what does make it work. Who cares about the ridiculousness of a setup when it has given you someone as resourceful, resilient, and generous as Katniss Everdeen to root for?

Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) directs and is in command of the material. The opening section of the film, set in District 12, references the Great Depression photography of Dorothea Lange, particularly her photo Migrant Mother — wretched poverty devoid of color.

When we get to the Capitol, the future really kicks in. We're shown a dystopia where fashion and pleasure are king, and callousness for humanity is the norm. This is when the film is most in danger of flying apart, but it pulls it back in with finality when Katniss, Peeta, and 22 other children enter an arena and start murdering each other.

Where The Hunger Games is at its most problematic is in wondering how self-aware it is. In criticizing a society that enjoys watching kids kill kids, it provides thrills where you, the audience member, are twisted into rooting for kids killing kids. And when a romance between Katniss and Peeta develops — one that's knowingly acted out for public consumption in the Capitol — the artificiality of the relationship didn't stop the tween girls in my audience from tittering excitedly.

Ross' action scenes are a bit hyperactive and claustrophobic, and you can't always tell who's hurting whom. That probably helped secure a PG-13 rating, along with ditching a truly creepy element to the last battle as it's depicted in the book.

Sure, The Hunger Games is a patchwork of Battle Royale, The Running Man, The Lottery, Lord of the Flies ... . But there are worse obvious cultural influences to have. And it drives at classical Roman politics and appeasement, and that more than anything gives The Hunger Games any flush of realism that it has. The futuristic post-American civilization is called Panem, the "bread" part of the Latin for "bread and circuses," or systematic public diversion like gladiatorial blood lust.

In the film's most moving sequence, a sweet black girl is tragically killed, and we're shown her home region, District 11 — aka the South — responding with a riot of despair and helpless rage. The uprising is violently put down, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) frets about the lower classes thinking they can raise a hand against the wealthy, ethnically homogenous Capitol. Anyway, the baseline lesson of The Hunger Games is don't trust whitey, and I think that's a good one to teach kids over the course of a $152.5 million weekend.

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