(Gary Ross, 2012)
Hunger Games is so derivative, feels so familiar, that watching it I felt as if I had seen it before, or at least read the book, neither of which is true. In certain cases, that can be a good thing. Some of the great stories - in cinema and other forms - give you that feeling of narrative déjà vu, because they resonate in a specific way or because they find a plot or a structural hook that seems obvious, as if it had always been there, somewhere in the ether, and they just stumbled upon it.
I'm not sure that is the case with this film. Rather it - and Suzanne Collins' novel, from which it is adapted - cannily peel various ideas from eclectic sources and twist them together with no little wit and intelligence. So we have a little "Enders Game", a lot of the obscenity of modern reality tv mixed with the way horrendous violence and tragedy are packaged for us by broadcast news, a bit of the gladiatorial arena, some Western imagery, some of the starry-eyed romance of teen fiction and a wealth of deadly-game-show tales from pop culture, from Stephen King's "The Running Man" through Battle Royale to Killraven.
That sounds unwieldy, but it holds together for a number of reasons. First there is the strong, simple plotting and storytelling. The world-building of the first act seems impressively effortless, the world and its conditions established within the first few scenes, and then gradually expanded upon. Partly this is possible because of the familiarity I mentioned above; we have seen enough future-worlds to understand a certain amount of shorthand in the portrayal of another one.
The world depicted here is an America after some future-War, now named Panem and split into 12 districts, each of which serve the existence and prosperity of the Capitol. Each year two tributes are chosen from each district, one male and one female, to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised gladiatorial battle to the death, from which only one contestant can emerge alive. Our protagonists are Katniss and Peeta (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson) from the outlying District 12, which provides coal to power the Capitol while it's own residents freeze and starve to death. Katniss is a hunter and survivor, skilled with a bow and played by Lawrence with a sort of raw charisma: she stares down the camera with the same fearless beauty she directs at the colourfully-dressed peacocks of the Capitol. Peeta is more vulnerable, not least in his unrequited love for her, and Hutcherson plays him as close to a child, swinging between sweaty, crease-browed anxiety and puppy-eyed love.
Their encounters with the machinery beneath the Games and the Capitol shape the best scenes in the film, full of dry wit, blunt satire and some chilling resonances - the parallels with modern youth, shipped off to foreign wars, seem obvious. There are also some eye-catching supporting performances from Woody Harrelson, the perpetually underrated Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci.
Much of the second half of the film is devoted to the games themselves, and here Ross stumbles somewhat. His direction is loose and handheld for the most part, giving much of the narrative an immediate, intimate feel which works well and helps hide the relative low-budget for a big sci-fi film by avoiding any outright money shots (the shots of the Capitol itself are quite fleeting and notable for their lack of detail in comparison to the teeming cityscapes of the Star Wars prequels, for instance).
That also gives him a methodology for the action scenes. The games themselves are a bloodthirsty spectacle of murder and violence, but this is a film aimed at, if not quite children, then pre-teens. So Ross shoots the action like everything else, his camera shaking and jumping around, tight to faces and figures, rarely pulling back to give a sense of scale or context. It gives them a visceral jolt in the best moments, but renders them oddly (literally) bloodless and thin in the worst.
Throughout, however, the storytelling remains gritty and powerful, offering up a series of tense set-pieces, satisfying face-offs and taut character beats, and Ross' style does well to capture the beauty of the green world of the forest and Lawrence's movie star presence.
As summer blockbusters go, then, this is raw, involving, intelligent entertainment.