I went into The Hunger Games (2012) with an open mind, or so I thought, at first. I’m naturally skeptical of pop culture phenomenons this bloody popular, maybe even snobbish. But after fending off a subconscious urge to dislike the film for the first half hour or so, it eventually won me over, thanks largely to its powerful sociopolitical allegory and the steely central performance of Jennifer Lawrence.
The dark dystopian worldbuilding is pretty simplistic, but compellingly rendered: a world formerly wracked by war is divided into twelve districts. Every year, a barbaric tradition commemorates the end of the wars: the Hunger Games. Two children, one female and one male, are selected from each district to participate in a televised fight-to-the-death. For personal reasons, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a teen from the remote, poor twelfth district, volunteers for this appalling spectacle. She and her district’s male counterpart Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) travel to the faraway, wealthy Capitol for training and ultimate participation in the deadly contest, a brutal, unforgiving challenge with the highest of stakes.
At its core, The Hunger Games hasn’t done anything that hasn’t been done before on film; it’s basically a derivation of earlier works, from Lord of the Flies to The 10th Victim to Battle Royale. But it definitely does a lot of things right. In strictly science fictional terms, it’s no great shakes, but it does a sound job of performing the distinctly SFnal trick of utilizing an imaginary world to comment on our own. After a protracted initial build-up, not without a certain heightened-reality silliness, The Hunger Games eventually takes off when the spectacle gets underway, and the shocking realness of the characters’ situation strikes home. Meanwhile it comments effectively on wealth inequity, media sensationalism, and power politics in an authoritarian society: simple messages, but powerfully delivered and well integrated into the film’s human story.
Through it all, Lawrence gives another superb, Oscar-worthy performance, bringing depth and resilience to the film’s hero as she navigates an utterly unforgiving situation. She’s surrounded by a shrewdly cast and effective group, including Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, and the preternaturally likable Amandla Stenberg. It’s a solid and thoroughly entertaining big budget spectacle, one that — for once — didn’t leave me scratching my head on the way out of the theater, wondering why people liked it. Recommended.