The Hunger Games is a mess.

While not without its charms Gary (Pleasantville) Ross’s film ultimately comes off as an imposter, coasting on its brand and a hearty dose of classic science fiction and fantasy staples on a path that somehow manages to make two and a half hours of screen time seem rushed. It’s higher quality fare than many other recent tentpole franchise offerings thanks to the class struggles, Dystopian outlook, and the brutality of the concept but there’s nothing here than elevates the film from being more than a smash-up of The Handmaid’s Tale, Logan’s Run, and The Running Man skewed to the teen marketplace. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. The Hunger Games works as a modestly effective gateway genre film. There’s nothing new here but if there’s any justice it’ll be a conduit into a wide variety of better, previous works. It’s Teen Fiction made for a big budget for the big screen so it’s unfair to expect the same level of shading present in adult fare, but it’s still not all that good. Teen books or not, when you’re at the big boy’s table you’d better be prepared to throw down. It simply doesn’t. There’s no emotional payoff, a few too many shortcuts, and a few very glaring stylistic decisions that prohibit the film from earning its place in the pantheon, massive guaranteed box office number notwithstanding.

Jennifer (Winter’s Bone) Lawrence is Katniss, a headstrong young woman who lives in the rundown District 12 in the shattered and heavily divided autocracy of Panem long after the modern day. The North America we know is gone and one ruler (played here by a sleepwalking Donald Sutherland) stands tall with an iron fist. Of the twelve remaining districts it is the most impoverished and the best life Katniss can wish for is hardly a life at all. What she has is cunning and skill in the wild. She’s good with a bow, doesn’t adhere to rules, and has dreams outside the rigid framework her nation has allowed her. Those dreams involve protecting her family and possibly finding love with the handsome Gale (Liam Hemsworth, here reduced to longing stares and minimal dialogue).

The Hunger Games are a yearly occurrence in Panem where one boy and one girl are chosen from each district in a “Reaping”. Those children and young adults are trained and then sent into the wild to slay each other. This is an alternative to war and somehow it works, the first of many leaps of logic and faith in this story. When her little sister’s name is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place and she and after an acquaintance of hers named named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is chosen they are whisked away to begin their training. This portion of the movie is interesting because there’s so much to set up, but in trying to sell the dirty and bleak world of District 12 Ross invests a loose and handheld approach to his filmmaking and oftentimes the camera work betrays the storytelling. Typically in films like this the director is invisible but there are many moments where the stylistic decisions really strain the flow of what’s happening onscreen. Worse yet, once the story moves to the city with its bright colors and wacky fashion and hairstyles the shift in style is jarring. Suddenly the camerawork is crisp and the shot composition more epic. The material alone is enough to convey the divide between the rich and the poor but when the first fifteen minutes of a film is trying to channel Paul Greengrass there’s a bit of a narrative shock when it starts to riff on a Fifth Element era Luc Besson.

The best part of the film takes place in the capital. Partially because the most world building occurs there with the architecture, comically ridiculous socialites, and twists on the familiar but also because this is where the bulk of the real actors are present. Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and even Wes Bentley allow for a little of the dramatic burden be lifted from the younger actors. It lends a little weight to the proceedings, though it’s hard not to dismiss a lot of the exaggerated costuming and makeup. Tucci in particular gets a few laughs just due to his ridiculous purple hairstyle. This is a heightened look at our culture. Through a prism of a very rigid and dangerous government this rabid devotion to what is essentially a reality TV event showcases an extreme look at where we may be heading. It’s been done many times and a lot better but when a film geared towards a younger audience is willing to showcase the dangerous voyeuristic tendencies humans have coupled with their love of the visceral and sensational in a negative light it’s hard not to feel a little invested. The Hunger Games biggest asset is its anti-establishment bent and the way it spins our worst examples of human manipulation ranging from Roman times through Nazi Germany and right on to today. It’s often heavy handed and without that delightful Verhoevenian wit it’s mostly superficial, but it still is considerably more effective as a theme than say brooding vampires or even brooding wizards.

While in the Capital City, The Hunger Games works. The dynamic between Katniss, Peeta, and Woody Harrelson’s drunken instructor Haymitch [these names are so silly it's hard to take the flick seriously] is charming and contains a nice array of fun moments. Training sequences are easy ways to build character, have a few laughs, and set up the opposition and this film does a solid job of pulling it off.

Suzanne Collins’ books have the luxury of building in backstory that even a two and a half hour movie is incapable of. A lot of how much an individual enjoys this film depends on how much of this world they’re willing to buy. Accepting that a populace is this willing to be held in sway by such a ludicrous peace solution. Believing that kids killing kids for televised entertainment would be even possible.

When the film gets to the actual combat it loses the fun of showcasing the class system at work and becomes a product which strains the logic of why the books are such a sensation. Particularly with the Katniss character. Here is the protagonist of the entire trilogy, a very effective hunter and portrayed excellently by the always reliable Lawrence. Katniss has such a precise moral code and is so willing to protect those she loves it’s annoying to see the character constantly being kept from being an iconic heroine. Over the film’s last hour the story is completely focused on these 24 young people hiding, running, killing each other, and forming absolutely ridiculous alliances. It’s where The Hunger Games could have elevated itself into a legitimate tentpole film but instead showcases its young adult origins in vivid detail. Katniss almost never is given a chance to do anything good as characters come in from out of nowhere to give her the key to whatever needs to get her out of the pickle she’s in, balloons with gifts from the real world deliver an ingredient she needs, or worst yet a character saves her skin just before she’s killed or takes the fatal shot themselves. It’s lazy. Worse yet, Katniss is a legitimately interesting female leading character so having her luck out throughout the story makes the whole house of cards tumble.

And that is before dog creatures that have never been introduced in the film are suddenly created and manifest in the combat zone. Not only are they created but they are somehow not three-dimensional holograms but actual monsters who rip and shred and can kill the participants. I’d guess they’re explained in the book but when a film is reaching its climax and creatures that make no sense suddenly appear and once again provide handy to our leading character, it’s a problem. A big problem.

The Hunger Games is a mess, which is a shame because there are plenty of effective elements to it. It’s just not tied tightly enough for the finished product to work as a franchise starter or even a night at the movies and adult viewer can watch and feel like they got their money’s worth. A few nice performances and fun twists on our culture are great but the end result is a thoroughly convoluted scattershot bit of business.

The kids’ll love it though.

Rating:
★★☆☆☆

Out of a Possible 5 Stars