“Dystopian” has to be one of the most Googled words these days. A dystopia is characterized by a repressive government that utilizes a number of social controls to manipulate and subdue the masses. Literature tells us it’s just plain evil. So it goes a dystopian society is often depicted negatively, and the world on display in the marvelous “The Hunger Games” is no different. Orwell would be proud.
“The Hunger Games” is set sometime in the future. North America has collapsed and is now divided into a Capitol and 12 districts. Every year the Capitol selects two representatives from each district to fight to the death in a reality show format. When Katniss’ younger sister is selected for the games, she volunteers to take her sister’s place. Along with the sensitive Peeta, Katniss must represent her small mining district in the violent tournament. And everyone in each district is required to watch every bloody moment.
On the surface, “The Hunger Games” seems overly familiar. Readers accustomed with the 2000 film “Battle Royale” already know that the idea is nothing new. In cinema, variations on the story have provided fertile ground for popular action pictures. But where something like “The Running Man” played this type of narrative for thrills and crowd pleasing pulp entertainment, “The Hunger Games” doesn’t want us to take delight in the violence. Instead, director/writer Gary Ross and writer Billy Ray with the help of novelist Suzanne Collins have penned a script that is very smart taking a potentially outrageous concept and making it real. At the same time, given Collins’ teen lit background, there’s ample helpings of melodrama and adolescent angst to whet the target demographic.
What surprised me most is that unlike the formidable and hugely popular “Twilight” series, “The Hunger Games” has a potentially broader audience. This is one movie based on a best selling series that will enchant fans of the novels and folks who’ve never even heard of them (if that is even possible).
In addition to excellent writing and thoughtful direction that features glimpses of graphic violence without ever becoming explicit, the casting is impressive. Jennifer Lawrence proves she can carry a blockbuster but she’s anchored by some of the best in the business. Elizabeth Banks is positively unrecognizable as the sarcastic Effie, who chaperones the killer duo of Katniss and Peeta into the game. Woody Harrelson plays a former game winner who provides a little insight into how the game is played (it’s advice that matters without being too cliched).
But most viewers will be taken with Lenny Kravitz’ turn as the sensitive Cinna, the fashion designer who helps Katniss and Peeta get noticed. The singer/songwriter makes a very good impression. From what I heard after the screening, fans will not be disappointed by Donald Sutherland’s performance as President Snow. He’s cold and calculating and, well, pretty darned evil. Wes Bentley finally gets another opportunity to flex his acting chops by playing the ambitious Seneca, a reality television producer who orchestrates the games. And the always good (even in “Captain America”) Stanley Tucci really shines as the Richard Dawsonesque game show host.
“The Hunger Games” is a very good movie aimed at a broad audience. While casting a wide net waters down the message and dulls the edge a bit, I was impressed by how much more the movie shares with a film like “The Truman Show” than with something like “Rollerball” or “The Running Man.” The violence is enough to sternly caution parents with children under the age of 12, but the message, which warns against repressive regimes is enough to make us dig a bit deeper into the stories swirling around the Foxconn controversy. The steady and overworked hands that made the iPad I’m writing this review on are likely living the dystopian experience. And with reports of people willing to sell their organs for an Apple product, “The Hunger Games” might not be that far off.