*The Hunger Games (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Here's what's extraordinary about Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games: not all that much.
Don't misunderstand; there's nothing wrong with it. It's a satisfying read, no crime against literature unlike other much-adored recent book series. But Collins mines familiar dystopian ground, building around the kind of public-spectacle blood-and-circuses concept that's fueled everything from Logan's Run to Death Race 2000, from The Running Man to the Japanese Battle Royale. Once again, the future's such a blight, you gotta wear blades.
There's little that's new in The Hunger Games' battle arena, except the character at the center. Katniss Everdeen is the kind of heroine too little seen in pop culture: a strong young woman, utterly human in her anxieties about her shortcomings, and in no way defined by the men around her. There's one thing a film adaptation of The Hunger Games had to do, and that's give audiences a Katniss as gripping as Collins' creation.
That's exactly what director Gary Ross does by casting the remarkable Jennifer Lawrence. Like Lawrence's breakout, Oscar-nominated character in Winter's Bone, Katniss is a teenager living in an impoverished area, helping support a family with an absent father and an emotionally devastated mother. The premise finds Katniss volunteering to take the place of her younger sister as her district's female "tribute" in the ritual competition-to-the-death, built on a punishment for a failed attempt at overthrowing the government. But there's nothing superhuman about Katniss. She's just a loving sister putting others ahead of herself.
Ross' first act, in particular, does a terrific job of showcasing Lawrence, focusing on the bleak world of District 12 in muted grey tones and a complete absence of background score. On the whole, The Hunger Games is a surprisingly quiet blockbuster, which plays perfectly into Lawrence's presence as an actor.
She's equally convincing as the uncompromising spirit who shakes up a crowd with a demonstration of her archery prowess, and as the introvert frustrated at the idea that she has to become a likable reality-television star. And the star and director both nail the beginning of the competition itself, as a terrified Katniss visibly shakes at the fate awaiting her, and the opening minutes of the Games themselves explode in an almost mute jumble of carnage.
The film soars when Katniss is the focal point, and when she's not, it doesn't. Where Collins' book leaves largely subtextual the idea that Katniss could be a rallying point for disenfranchised citizens, the film introduces several scenes making it considerably more overt that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Games' overseer (Wes Bentley) are stacking the deck against her. The screenplay features some frustrating inefficiencies, including the dialogue too often being baldly expository.
As is the case with the book, the second half's focus on sheer survival propels the narrative forward in a satisfying way, building tense individual set pieces on Katniss' relationships with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and with a young combatant named Rue (Amandla Stenberg), who becomes a surrogate sister.
There's not much time to explore fully the world of Panem that gave rise to the Games, or anything that might be distinctive about this particular mass-marketed slaughter, but that's not a major problem. When it works best, The Hunger Games is a showcase for the low-key ferocity of Jennifer Lawrence, playing the most compelling kind of hero: the kind who begins to change the world simply by doing what she believes is right.