The Hunger Games is not a bad film, although it must be said that it is a decidedly superficial one. Which isn’t a bad thing, per-se. When Phillip Messina’s production design does wonders to sell the contrast between the dusted-earth Appalachia of District 12 and the pop-fiction of the Capitol district (locations which you can probably derive a function for without specific information from me), the film is a veritable hoot anyway. When the superficial is this good – take Judianna Makovsky’s loopy but dementedly blissful David-Bowie-at-the-circus costume design, for one – it can be easy to overlook how insubstantial all of it is.
Not to mention, this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult fiction book boasts a startlingly cinematic realization of its main heroine in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, now a household name but just three short years ago merely the girl from Winter’s Bone. A film of note, as Lawrence was clearly cast on the back of that eye-opening slice of Southern Gothic, being that she here plays a largely identical wise-beyond-her-years teenager transposed to the fictional but not too fictional world of Panem. After displaying her chops wandering with an unnatural forcefulness and determination through the perilous limbo of the Southern mountaintops of Winter’s Bone, she wears the monumentally Appalachian name of Katniss Everdeen here with all the nervous anxiety and dogged persistence it calls for.
Persistence for what? To survive the yearly Hunger Games tournament of youths from each district of Panem (a post-American country occupying the physical space of the US). Every year, two children from each district are selected for training and transport to a brutal free-for-all fight to the death, the devilishly avuncular President Snow (Donald Sutherland) hoping the conflict will serve as a reminder of his power and, in letting one victor climb out of the tournament, his appointed position as a bringer of hope (his own words). Katniss volunteers when her sister is chosen, and a boy with a puppy-dog crush on her is the second fighter from her district (a boy played by Josh Hutcherson, not doing much but not ruining anything with his general tepidness either).
What follows is a blasé and largely inconsequential work of pseudo-depth sticking some fangs into American society. It forgot to sharpen those fangs, however, and they fall out almost immediately, leaving a gnaw-not-quite-bite wound that is as easily interpreted as a Tea Party rabble-rouser or a quasi-Marxist call for social revolution. The generality of the claim isn’t a problem per-se (it could always be a mythic call for non-specific social critique done up in filmic airs), but the fact that the film doesn’t seem to realize it is broad most certainly is.
To put it another way, The Hunger Games, for a broad, almost mythic parable about America today, spends an inordinate amount of time aiming for a naturalist specificity the script can’t back up. Because it tries so hard to essay a real place out of what ought to be a parable, the film not only lacks a singular identity but the superficial analysis of social inequality feels not like a proudly surface-level work of myth-making and fiction, but a failed attempt to seem real and complicated. The broad-minded, non-specific take on inequality has its place when matched to simple, grandly theatrical gestures more out of a campfire story than a hard-hitting social analysis (Snowpiercer, for instance, takes this route and does wonders with its commentary because it never acts like the place it is essaying is a real location with deep thoughts about society). But in aiming for something more realist, the film only exposes how simplistic the material is. It seems broad as a failure of its ability to be the non-broad film it wants to be, and not because the broadness was an artistic choice like, say, Mad Max: Fury Road.
That said, the second half where the bloodletting occurs is a tried-and-true slice of somewhat pure cinema, director Gary Ross hurtling us around with surprisingly scruffy, solid directing and the set design really selling a location positioned halfway between naturalism and a more hyper-realist alien variation on Earth. As a rule, and this is both the film’s benefit and its detriment, The Hunger Games is at its best when it is throwing teenagers against one another and not-quite-watching them kill one another, which is a shame considering the higher-ambitions of the material. It certainly feels like it is dancing around a point it never arrives at, but at least it is a genuinely invigorating dance (except the spastic jerks where the film tries too hard to disguise the lack of R rating when the kills commence). At the very least, the second half affords us a modern blockbuster with a buoyant green look to it, and in the age of brown-and-gray self-seriousness to our pop fluff, that isn’t nothing.