‘Hunger Games’ nearly undone by annoying direction

  • Thu Mar 22nd, 2012 11:44am
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

A very grim affair for a would-be blockbuster, “The Hunger Games” takes flight from a best-selling young adult novel by Suzanne Collins. As you may have heard, Hollywood is holding its breath hoping this might be the next “Harry Potter”-sized franchise.

Well, maybe. It’s got young protagonists and characters with funny names, but the “Potter” connection mostly ends there.

“The Hunger Games” does share one specific trait with individual movies in the HP series: It doesn’t stand on its own. This is clearly the first part of a larger story, so prepare yourself for a distinct sense of flatness at the end.

The basic idea’s a humdinger, a sort of mash-up of the Japanese “Battle Royale” and the Schwarzenegger picture “The Running Man.” A future totalitarian society has been holding its annual Hunger Games for 73 years, as ritual punishment of its 12 districts for a past uprising. Each district selects a male and a female teenager to compete in the games, and all 24 are dropped in a zone to battle it out against each other. To the death.

There can be only one survivor. And although the film does a lousy job of conveying this, the Hunger Games are televised, complete with a nutty host (Stanley Tucci) who makes Ryan Seacrest look like Tom Brokaw.

We are concerned with the representatives from District 12: the plucky Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence, from “Winter’s Bone”), a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). He’s not exactly a favorite in the competition; his own mother thinks he doesn’t stand a chance. (Of course, she also named him Peeta. Thanks, Mom.)

Coached by a drunken ex-champ (Woody Harrelson), the kids are made to understand that they must be “likable” to the audience, which will help them survive the competition. The strings are being pulled by a dictator (Donald Sutherland) and his TV czar (Wes Bentley).

In short, “The Hunger Games” offers some social comment with its action: It’s about how society pacifies its population with mindless entertainment. As Katniss’ beau (Liam Hemsworth) observes, if only people would stop watching this stuff, the state couldn’t keep it going.

So, will people keep watching “The Hunger Games”? The movie’s got massive advance interest, but its storytelling is stark and humorless — although, in Jennifer Lawrence, it has a strong central presence.

Director Gary Ross, who last guided “Seabiscuit” to the finish line, proves himself almost completely incompetent in the business of creating this kind of movie. The movie’s got enough jittery camera and disconnected close-ups to make it seem trendy, but Katniss’ journey gets lost in the hubbub.

The premise is grabby enough to carry the story through the annoying style, but even at 147 minutes, “The Hunger Games” doesn’t have any breathing room for the kind of stuff that makes a movie truly memorable. With a different director at the helm, the second installment might be an improvement — as long as this one makes a billion dollars or so first.

“The Hunger Games” (2½ stars)

The best-selling YA novel by Suzanne Collins receives a jittery, annoying treatment on the screen, but the grabby plot idea (teens face off in a battle to the death) and the presence of Jennifer Lawrence almost make it work. The rather flat ending won’t enhance the chances of Part Two getting made.

Rated: PG-13 for violence.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Meridian, Metro, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.