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‘Hunger Games' Are Not the Event You've Been Waiting For

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“The Hunger Games” succeeds as the first chapter of a trilogy, introducing a compelling vision of the future and populating it with characters who feel credible, even if they have pink hair. But as a standalone piece, the film is undone by its second half, which provides few thrills and inadequately serves the story at large.

There are the makings for a classic: We open with poor mining families living in so-called District 12. They live in the woods, under the oppression of a peacekeeping force. When they are between the ages of 12 and 18, they are entered into a lottery. The lottery determines the male and female representatives who will represent their district in a nationwide televised event, where 24 young adults fight to the death in order to recall the consequences of a failed uprising by the lower class years ago. There is more to explain than that, of course, but writer/director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) moves through the setup effortlessly. The pacing is slow but deliberate, and his rough shooting style conveys an authenticity that dystopian visions rarely contain.

When Katniss (played by the terrific Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to participate in the Games to take the place of her younger sister, the movie whisks viewers to the Capitol, where she is turned from rube to celebrity and where addle-minded rich fops fawn over her gumption and skills with a bow and arrow. She is prepared for the match by a fun cast of characters played by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravtiz. She is interviewed by a blue-haired television personality played gleefully by Stanley Tucci. She befriends her fellow Tribute from District 12 (Josh Hutcherson), who is unsure of his chances for survival. The movie accomplishes all of this with verve, wit and nary a bad line of dialogue. It’s almost remarkable how much the movie explains about the hierarchy, traditions and history of this society without ever feeling expository.

And then the Hunger Games start, and Katniss sits in a tree for a while.

Of course, it’s not that easy for her. There’s a type of hornets’ nest in one of the trees that she must manage and a manufactured forest fire at one point, as well as other obstacles that just as unimaginative. The problem isn’t really a lack of action, as this isn’t really an action film. The problem is that viewers aren’t invested in any characters except Katniss (if you like Peeta, the whelpy one-note with the crush, you’re just as big of a sucker as the audience members in the movie). With only one person to care about, and with that person doing a lot of hiding and pensive glancing, there’s not a lot for viewers to do besides reflect on how dull the games are, question the motivations of the antagonistic Tributes pursuing Katniss and wonder where the hell Stanley Tucci went. There’s also the bouncing camera, which was so delightfully untethered and observant in the first half of the film but here becomes an impediment to understanding spatial relationships and fight choreography – which are kind of the point of the last half of the movie.

Suzanne Collins, the author of the novels (as well as a credited screenwriter on the film), is obviously a gifted storyteller. She cannot escape comparison with J.K. Rowling, but her story has enough fertile social commentary to withstand that match-up. What she lacks is Rowling’s boundless imagination. If the film had the good sense to stick to entertaining ruminations on reality television or class disparity, the second half might not feel like such a chore. But the film strips away all of the interesting tension and funnels itself into a tired “Lord of the Flies” retread, and Collins does not have the daydreams to compensate.

The author likely is aware of the flaw in her story: the actual Hunger Games are primarily a tangent because the real bad guys never enter the competition. In fact, that’s largely the argument she’s trying to make. But that doesn’t make the mundane chase sequences feel any more thrilling or relevant. In the film’s final moments, we finally realize how Katniss can use the Games to make a power play that will forever change the dynamic – but that’s long after too many side quests and suggestions of an adolescent love triangle.

To be wholly successful, this film series must follow its heroine and learn to play to its strengths.

Grade: C+