With a hyped-to-the-hilt teen-friendly phenomenon like “The Hunger Games,” the filmmaker’s first and foremost worry is to not screw it up. Gary Ross, who directed “Seabiscuit,” manages to get this nag out of the starting gate and across the finish line with no major blunders, but without much in the way of inspiration, either.
It’s a slow, Harry Potter-paced trip through the recycled sci-fi tropes of novelist Suzanne Collins, science fiction for kids new to sci-fi. It features a winning heroine, a handsome boy she left behind, and a reliable love interest for the “Game” itself — a regular “Twilight” triangle. No wonder they’re predicting a $250 million box-office bonanza for studio Lionsgate.
But is it great science fiction? No.
In a somewhat distant future, America has disintegrated into Panem, a loose collection of “districts” under the thumb of the Capitol. These Emerald City folk keep the farmers, fishermen, miners and others in the out-districts in line with a combination of force and reality television.
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And The Event of the TV season is the annual Hunger Games, when 24 tween-to-teenagers from the 12 districts fight to the death in an enclosed survival environment. The winner is the last kid standing.
Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone,” is a coal miner’s daughter, a mountain girl with forest savvy and bow-hunting skills. When her much younger sister is picked in “The Reaping,” an annual lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and the local baker’s son, alliteratively named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), will represent District 12 in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
They are shepherded into this world by a garishly made-up Elizabeth Banks, given hair and leg-waxing makeovers (this IS teenage girls’ fiction) and mentored and trained for the blood match by the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, who gives this guy a light touch).
His boozy advice? “Embrace the probability of your imminent death.”
Then, on live TV, they’re presented to the nation, where they must stand out, charm the public (the show is manipulated to give the popular kids all the breaks) and be recognized by the president (Donald Sutherland) — “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
There’s a lot going on here: that high school “be popular or be left behind” ethos, kids taught to not expect much of a future (some have trained for this odds-against-them death-fight for years), an urban elite keeping the rural rabble in line and a simmering possibility of youth revolt — a Panem version of the Arab Spring.
The design borders on ’70s sci-fi silly. Director Ross and his designers give the District 12 scenes a Great Depression-era pall of brown and gray. But the city folk are straight out of “The Wizard of Oz” or Dr. Seuss, with everyone from government officials (Wes Bentley) to TV presenters (a funny Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones) wearing outlandish eye makeup, overly colorful costumes and Cindy Lou Who hairstyles. It’s a limited vision of the future, partly a product of the sci-fi sampler that novelist Collins drew from — works such as “The Lottery,” “The Running Man,” “Logan’s Run” and the like — partly a product of studio economics.
This compares to tiny Summit’s version of the “Twilight” novels. It looks right enough, but a tad cheap. And it doesn’t help to wonder how a big-budget outfit like Warner Bros. might have given this the sheen and detail of the Harry Potter movies.
They cast this well, though the meteoric rise of Lawrence hasn’t allowed her time to learn how to play romance. That’s partly her character, unsophisticated as she is. But you kind of look for a little teen heat, or at least longing and love, in her affections for Peeta and hometown pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Lawrence hasn’t played that, and the emotional moments in the movie lack the necessary pathos.
Collins’ novels are slated to become a four-film series, and “Hunger Games” gets them off to a good enough start. The first film in a “saga” is often humorless, overloaded with exposition, intent on setting up the myth and the world that myth lives in. But with fans already set to feast upon this one, there won’t be a lot of motivation to make future installments more nourishing.