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Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (Release Date: 3-23-2012)

        Hundreds of years in the future, the United States has fallen. The nation was ripped apart through civil war, but has since been resurrected as a new country, named Panem. The Capitol of Panem is a shamefully wealthy place, residents sinking their funds into gaudy fashion and rampant excess. The twelve surrounding districts whom the big wigs of the Capitol govern are not so lucky. Not only are the regions lower on the socio-economic scale, ranging from mildly well-off to dirt poor, they're also subject to one nasty annual tradition. Each year, one boy and one girl from each district is randomly selected to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised gladiator event wherein 24 youths enter an arena, and only one is allowed to leave. The rest meet their end at the hands of their peers.

        These are the trappings of Suzanne Collins' mega-selling Young Adult novel The Hunger Games, a property that was essentially a financial slam dunk the second that it was announced. Lionsgate, a mid-major studio who has never had anything even close to this big on their hands, could have easily phoned this one in and still broken Box Office records, but, god bless them, they didn't. Not even close. The Hunger Games film is riveting, pulsing with blockbuster electricity and enormity that are usually regulated to the summer months of movie release date calendar. It wants to be big and important, and it is.

        Much of this comes down to the excellent handling of the production, starting off with the film's impeccable casting. Anyone who's read the novel knows that the intrigue of The Hunger Games owes as much to Katniss Everdeen, the strong, surly female who relays the tale through first-person, as it does to its dystopian set-up. Casting Katniss was a make or break for this movie, and I'm proud to announce that the studio's choice, youthful indie veteran Jennifer Lawrence, is a resounding triumph. Few actresses Lawrence's age have such a sense of gravitas, such an ability to visually communicate inner strength without over-doing it. She's also physically up to snuff, and while her voluptuous person might come at contrast to her age (16) and malnourished upbringing, there's a power to her body that makes her wholly believable as the warrior that Katniss is meant to be. Everyone surrounding her is similarly great, but the movie is all about Lawrence, who was the new kid on the block a mere 2 years ago, nabbing her first Oscar nomination for the gritty, unrelenting Winter's Bone. The Hunger Games will/has made her an enormous star overnight, and she deserves every last bit of it.

        The Hunger Games possess inextricable links to two other pieces of art, to which it will be compared to from here on out into eternity. The first, of course, is the source novel. The second is the entire Twilight series, but we'll get to that in a minute. Many obsessed, detail-oriented fans will complain about this omission or that one, but I'm here to take a divisive stance: I think that The Hunger Games works better on screen than on page. Where the novel is entirely seen through Katniss' eyes, doling out endless inner-monologue, much involving a tacked-on feeling love triangle as she fights for her life, the film uses an objective eye. This allows the movie to capture the proceedings on a much grander scale, all the valor and violence expansive and serious-minded. The book, in the opinion of this writer, occasionally presented its dire story in a frivolous manner. The film makes no such mistake.

        As a mind-blowingly popular Young Adult novel with hints of fantasy, observed through the eyes of a young female with two hulky, doting boys in tow, The Hunger Games almost begs to be compared to Twilight. Admittedly, I have not read Stephanie Meyer's vampire series, but a movie-to-movie comparison between the two is simply no contest. The Hunger Games is a straight-faced affair, dealing with heavy themes without skimping on the adrenaline, working wonders of size with its relatively modest 78 million dollar price tag. The original Twilight movie featured lines like, 'Hold on, Spider Monkey,' and its cheap aesthetic might prompt one to wonder how much of its 37 million dollar budget was lost to couch cushions. The later Twilight entries, Breaking Dawn withstanding, have been decidedly less laughable, but there's truly no justifying the comparison. Twilight is a wish-fulfillment romance with auxiliary elements pasted on its edges. The Hunger Games, much like its strong-willed heroine, hardly has time for love at all. It's too busy fighting for its life, working its tail off to be a towering, enveloping entertainment, as opposed to just a successful one. Hats off to Hollywood: 2012 finally has its first real winner.

Grade: A-

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