Every dollar Disney won't get at the box office for the $250-million “John Carter” will probably end up in the pockets of Lionsgate and the other entities behind “The Hunger Games” (which allegedly cost less than half as much). The first volume of Suzanne Collins' series about a plucky girl in a dystopic future arrived just as Stephenie Meyer's “Twilight” saga — about a plucky girl in a lycanthropic (and vampiric) present — was winding down, tapping into the same female tween/teen audience.
That demographic certainly doesn't need a plot synopsis here, but since their parents probably do ...
In a post-apocalyptic America, the government keeps the once-rebellious proles in line through force, humiliation and hopelessness. Every year, each of the 12 districts (whose labor allows the city dwellers to live in luxury) chooses, in a lottery, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to take part in the Hunger Games. These 24 contestants are dumped in a wilderness, from which only one will be allowed to emerge alive. As the kids kill each other, the resulting mayhem is broadcast on live TV, molded into a narrative that delights the decadent urbanites and demoralizes the impoverished outlanders.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in a variation on her Oscar-nominated role in “Winter's Bone”) volunteers as a substitute for her beloved 12-year-old sister (Willow Shields). She and a baker's son named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — a longtime secret admirer — are shuttled off to the Games, getting advice along the way (from Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz, no less). By design, mayhem ensues.
The notion of lethal competition as reality TV is far from new. The same hook drove “Series 7” (2001), “The Condemned” (2007) and the granddaddy of them all — Elio Petri's wonderful “The 10th Victim” (1965), which — 30 years before the emergence of reality TV — laid out this subgenre's template and an amazing number of the details. And they all spin high-tech equivalents of Rome's gladiatorial contests.
Even Collins' twist — making the combatants teenagers — was already done, in “Battle Royale” (2000), the final work from master director Kinji Fukasaku. Collins says she was unfamiliar with the Japanese film (and the preceding novel and manga). Most of the films' similarities spring naturally from the hook, so she may deserve the benefit of the doubt, though a few — each kid having a different, single weapon, for instance — seem more than coincidental.
Teen fiction may strike grown-ups as, by its nature, kitsch — to paraphrase a commercial of some decades ago, “Kitsch is for kids!” — but, on screen, “The Hunger Games” has the benefit of respectful, irony-free direction from Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”). Early on, Ross uses some unmotivated and unnecessary handheld camera, and the effects used to create the city are sometimes cheap-looking and unconvincing, but in general he gets the job done tastefully.
Hutcherson (“The Kids Are All Right”) is as good as could be hoped, given a character that seems weak compared to Katniss. And Lawrence reaffirms her ability to carry a film. The supporting cast includes relative veterans Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones and Wes Bentley, acting through layers of grotesque hair, makeup and fashions, designed to emphasize the decadence of the upper classes.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).