The Odds Are Ever in Its Favor

Overcoming hype, The Hunger Games movie provides sci-fi nourishment

Sci-fi adventure The Hunger Games relies heavily on CGI effects in a variety of visual formats—2-D, 3-D and 3-D IMAX. As a wearer of distance glasses, I loathe the revival of 3-D, a silly gimmick for kids from the 1950s. So I chose a simpler way to watch The Hunger Games without the discomfort of two pairs of glasses, and don’t feel like I missed a thing. I can live without another flying spear.

This futuristic tale of teenage violence is so not my kind of movie that I approached it grudgingly. Imagine my surprise when I ended up being totally exhilarated and enjoying it immensely.

Based on the teenage cult novel by Suzanne Collins, which I admit I’d never heard of, The Hunger Games takes place in some distant world called Panem (formerly North America) several generations after a quashed rebellion against the Capitol. As punishment for the aggression, the wreckage was divided into 12 districts. Every year each district must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen by lottery, to compete in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. The purpose: a mass killing spree with only one survivor. Everyone shows up at the Hall of Justice to watch, like the ancient Romans cheered the Christians as they were eaten alive by lions in the Colosseum. Part spectator sport, part law and part show business, the “games” are the World Series of the Holocaust of Tomorrow.

What gives this 74th year’s event special TMZ-appeal is that the two 16-year-old contestants from the 12th district are a pretty girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, from Winter’s Bone) and an even prettier boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, from The Kids Are All Right) who, in the process of becoming warriors, fall in love. The publicity value of two lovers fighting until one kills the other gives the games a special edge that guarantees ratings. If she was still around, they would be on Oprah.

It’s a nasty but transfixing idea. However, Shirley Jackson got there first with her unforgettable short story “The Lottery.” Still, the myriad details in the screenplay Collins adapted herself and the colorful direction by Gary Ross provide enough stimulation for three movies. From the “reapings,” where the contestants are chosen by drawing numbers, to the lavishly appointed dining car on a train to the Capitol where they meet their mentor—a cynical, drunken reprobate named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson in a long blond hippie wig)—to the 100,000 cheering spectators gathered for the blood spill like dress extras from Quo Vadis, we watch the teams with their costumes and pageantry, preparing for the slaughter. The master of ceremonies is a campy Caesar (played by Stanley Tucci as a cross between Liberace and one of the trashy Kardashians).

Injected with a tracking system that reveals their whereabouts at all times, they are transported to the playing fields. Equipped with knives, swords, bows and arrows and other weapons, they begin the massacre. In one poetic image, a butterfly lands on Katniss’ finger in battle, the last symbol of freedom she will know. Forests of land mines, a lethal hive of poisonous wasps that cause pain, hallucinations and death called “Trackerjackers” and nuclear fires are among the many CGI effects unleashed like torpedoes. It’s all supposed to be mind-boggling, but excuse me: In an age of reality TV, when 90 percent of everything on the tube has turned ugly, vulgar and stupid, the movie lacks a necessary sense of creepy tension. It just looks like what you saw the night before on Survivor. Still, it’s entertaining, and you find yourself rooting for the lovers. The cruelty of the games results in mob protests and a possible revision of the rules.

No wonder the book The Hunger Games is so popular with young readers. It has a message about the triumph of good over evil. It has romance, action, danger, expensive eye candy, flamboyant villains, teenage carnage and two attractive leads who symbolize honor, courage and sacrifice. It might even end with a profit.

The Hunger Games (PG-13) ★★★☆☆

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