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"I volunteer as tribute!"
on April 4, 2012
Every year, twenty-four teenage "tributes" are brought to the Capitol of Panem, and sent out into the arena to kill each other on live TV. Only one will survive.
This chilling premise is at the center of "The Hunter Games," a brilliant, powerful movie adapted from the first book of Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy. It's a slow-burning thriller twined with some barbed satire (reality TV!) and an oppressive government -- but at heart, it's an uplifting story about a young woman fighting to be free.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the impoverished District 12, hunting food to provide for her mother and her beloved little sister Prim (Willow Shields). But on the day of the reaping, Prim is selected. And Katniss does something no one else has done -- she volunteers to go instead. Along with the male tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), she is swept away to the Capitol.
Once there, the tributes are pampered, tutored, styled and turned into celebrities -- until they're released into the arena, and start killing each other to survive. Katniss must evade murderous gangs, traps, and genetically engineered beasts.
But because Peeta publicly declared his love for Katniss, the audience has taken a shine to the impoverished young "lovers" and are rooting for them to triumph. But if both Katniss and Peeta are to survive, they must learn how to play the game that the gamemakers and polticians are playing -- and use the Hunger Games against them.
I'm not sure why so many people compare "The Hunger Games" to the Twilight movies, because it literally has everything that "Twilight" does not. It has plenty of action, adventure, a subtle romance, and some barbed social commentary -- and it has a raw, passionate quality that easily matches its strong-willed heroine.
The movie also shows us what a rotten place Panem is, whether it's the sleek, colorful superficiality of the Capitol or the faded squalor of District 12. But "Hunger Games" is at its best when it's in the forests of the arena -- there's a primal, wild quality to Katniss' adventures there, tempered with tenderer moments (such as when she cares for the gravely wounded Peeta).
The romance with Peeta is also refreshingly uncliched, leaving the audience unsure of how much of their love was for the audience's benefit (although we glimpse some flickers of real love between them). The biggest problems are that a lot of the violence seems rather toned down, and the shakycam becomes rather annoying at times.
But Jennifer Lawrence does an excellent job bringing Katniss to life, imbuing her with strength, fear, brains and a fiery temper -- exactly what the "girl on fire" needs to have. Josh Hutcherson is equally good as Peeta, and there are a string of great performances by Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks and Amandla Stenberg. There's a lot of passion in even the minor actors' performances.
"The Hunger Games" successfully mingles dystopian sci-fi, romance and a tale of rebellion, giving us a brilliantly raw, passionate movie. A must-see.