‘Hunger Games’ Review: Compelling But Implausible, Like ‘American Idol’ with a Body Count

Even non-readers of Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers will get sucked into this future dystopia where teens are forced to compete in bloodsport

Last Updated: November 7, 2013 @ 12:57 PM

Like so much of contemporary pop culture, “The Hunger Games” ravenously consumes ideas from other books and movies and repurposes them for its own needs. Not much digging is required to find plot elements from “The 10th Victim,” “Battle Royale,” “The Truman Show,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Running Man,” and “Series 7: The Contenders,” alongside design ideas from “A Clockwork Orange” and even the infamously ridiculous “The Apple.”

It’s easy to forgive this kind of thievery, however, when the perp actually does something with the stolen goods, and for whatever “The Hunger Games” lacks in originality, it makes up for with verve and relentless forward motion.

Like the reality shows it comments upon, the movie dazzles you with its bravado and moves fast enough to keep you from asking too many questions about its implausibility.

As almost any teenager or YA-reading adult can tell you, “The Hunger Games” is set in a future dystopia where the central government punishes the populace for an uprising generations earlier by forcing each of 12 districts to supply a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in a televised competition in which the last person standing wins.

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In the Appalachia-like coal-mining District 12, 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) gets called up in her first year of eligibility, but to save her life, Prim’s sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to go in her place in an unprecedented act of courage. Katniss and her fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked off to the capitol city to train for the games.

As a skilled hunter proficient with a bow and arrow, Katniss enters the competition with an impressive skill set. But it’s Peeta who figures out that PR plays an equally large role in who lives and who dies, so he immediately starts playing to the crowd and eventually declares his secret love for Katniss on TV. (It’s not unlike those “American Idol” kids who use hard-luck stories about sickness or dead relatives to get more camera time during the auditions.)

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After Katniss and Peeta train under the tutelage of former Games winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), they’re finally sent off into the wilderness to compete. The kids from Districts 1 and 2 have trained their entire lives for this event, but the resourcefulness of the more impoverished children — including young Rue (Amandla Stenberg) from District 11 — make it a fairer fight, even with Games master Seneca (Wes Bentley) creating fire, manipulating the rise and fall of the sun, and even summoning deadly dog-beasts out of thin air from his control room.

Non-readers of Suzanne Collins’ series of bestsellers will see the appeal of the books, since the plot is packed with incident, charging forward with the adrenaline of an old-school cliffhanger serial. Those same viewers may themselves a little confused over details.

For instance, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of having sponsors to survive the Games, even though here, the sponsors wind up not impacting the Games at all — but the screen adaptation (by director Gary Ross with Collins and Billy Ray) generally keeps everything zipping along, tying up plot issues when it needs to and laying groundwork for the inevitable sequels.

There’s a certain inescapable predictability to “The Hunger Games,” particularly when it becomes well established that Katniss is only going to kill in self-defense (and even then, she’s not going to take out any characters for whom we might have even a smidgen of sympathy).

But even that — as well as the knowledge that she’s got three more installments to survive for — doesn’t take away too much from Ross’ portrayal of the deadly competition.

Cinematographer Tom Stern, a frequent collaborator of Clint Eastwood’s, gives each corner of this world a distinctive look; District 12 calls to mind the Depression-era photos of Dorothea Lange (and the railyard “reaping” ceremony, where the district’s tributes are chosen at random, has a real Final Solution feel to it), whereas the gleaming, decadent capitol city is all slickness and shiny surfaces.

Since the movie is far more interested in plot than in character, the performances here tend to be perfectly fine if nothing spectacular. Lawrence certainly conveys Katniss’ sheer will and determination, making her a far more compelling female lead than the movies usually give us.

Stanley Tucci (as a popular TV host) and Elizabeth Banks are clearly having a ball camping it up in outrageous costumes and makeup, and Donald Sutherland occasionally injects some much-needed gravitas as the president who worries that Katniss’ popularity might rile up the masses.

No one’s going to mistake “The Hunger Games” for high art, but as an action movie with a dash of “A Tween’s First Satire of Media and Class Exploitation,” it’s a thoroughly serviceable popcorn movie.

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