With the highly-lucrative HARRY POTTER franchise already ended last summer, and THE TWILIGHT SAGA quadrilogy is nearing its end this coming November, Hollywood is looking for the next big thing in turning another popular young-adult novel into successful movie franchise. That adaptation turns out to be the first novel in Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy called THE HUNGER GAMES (the other two are CATCHING FIRE and MOCKINGJAY). Described as a teenage version of THE RUNNING MAN (1987) meets BATTLE ROYALE (2000), THE HUNGER GAMES has been generating a lot of strong buzz even before its initial release. However, I hate to say that this so-called "one of the most anticipated movie events of the year" is hugely overrated.
Set in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem divided into 12 districts, the movie begins at the poorer society of District 12 where we are first introduced to 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who spends her days hunting with 18-year-old best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). She lives with her widowed mother (Paula Malcomson) and her 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields). One day the government arrives at District 12 to announce the citizens for the annual televised death match called "The Hunger Games". Two "tributes" from each district -- a boy and a girl -- must participate in this fight-to-the-death match where only one survivor will emerged as a winner. During the lucky draw selection by the escort named Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Prim is being chosen to fight for her life in the match. But upon hearing the name, Katniss immediately steps out to volunteer in her place. However, she is shocked to hear when the male "tribute" happens to be a baker's son named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has once saved her life years before.
After the selection, they board on a train to the luxurious city of Capitol where they and the other 22 other opponents will undergoes a series of makeovers. Before "The Hunger Games" begin, they will be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic and the only living winner from District 12. Then a stylist named Cinna (singer Lenny Kravitz) and Effie Trinket are there to help them make good impression with potential sponsors. Once they have endured a series of training sessions, they will be ready for the main event as they are sent into a thick-forested arena, rigged with enough hidden cameras for nationwide coverage. Can Katniss survives the game?
The good news is, the filmmakers behind THE HUNGER GAMES has made a smart choice casting Jennifer Lawrence as the main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. She is simply perfect for the role -- both emotionally and physically convincing, while her expressive acting is particularly top-notch. However, the same cannot be said for the rest of the supporting cast. Josh Hutcherson, who supposedly plays a pivotal role as Katniss's love interest, fails to make his character worthwhile and his acting is disappointingly wooden throughout the movie. Liam Hemsworth fares even worst as Katniss's best friend, who delivers a thankless role as Gale. Others including Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland are just so-so, while I must say only Stanley Tucci makes the best of his limited screen time as the flamboyant television host Caesar Flickerman.
Director Gary Ross, who hasn't been directed a movie since 2003's SEABISCUIT, is an odd choice directing this kind of movie. But one can't deny it's also interesting to see him what unique flair he can bring to translate the source material into the big screen. While he does quite a decent job fleshing out some of the ingredients from the book (particularly during the first hour), Ross and his team of screenwriters including Suzanne Collins herself and Billy Ray, fails to capture the very essence of the game itself. Blame it on the PG-13 rating, where everything here -- especially the violence -- are disappointingly toned down it's hard to feel the grittiness of the setting. Ross is also considerably weak as a visual stylist, who made a fatal mistake opting handheld camerawork to capture all the action during the game scene. It is understandable that he chooses cinema verite style to evoke the certain sense of you-are-there realism but try hard as he might, he is no Paul Greengrass. As a result, the much-awaited "game" scene during the second half after a full one-hour of buildup storyline is disappointingly non-event and also very frustrating to watch for.
Clocking at a 142 minutes, THE HUNGER GAMES is also terribly overlong since most of the executions here are cinematically lackluster. There's nary a single memorable moment worth mentioning here, and even the big-budget production values (at a cost of $100 million) are just average-looking at best. The only worthwhile technical credit here is T-Bone Bunnett and James Newton Howard's rousing score.
With two more books to go (provided if this movie made a lot of money), I seriously hope the filmmakers can improve upon their mistake in the subsequent series. As for now, THE HUNGER GAMES is a huge waste of opportunity to turn this into a memorable cinematic experience.