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Yes, The Hunger Games is like The Running Man meets The Truman Show...with a heart! No, that's not a bad thing. It's a good thing. It could have been a great thing.

But sloppy direction undermines the smart story and the fine casting, so that instead of something profound and haunting, we end up with something merely clever and nerve-stretching.

There was a rebellion in the world of the Hunger Games. It failed. As punishment for their rebellion, the various districts are required to yield up two teenagers - one boy, one girl - every year. The kids, selected by lottery, are brought to the Capitol, given makeovers and lavish accommodations, trained, and then sent to kill each other in a carefully constructed combat zone. The whole thing is televised, and of course, everybody watches.

There's lots to admire in this setup: the way the masses are both oppressed and entertained by the Games, the sharp comment on Moving to the Big City to Become a Star, society's simultaneous fetishization and resentment of youth, etc.

And things only get more delicious from there: in order to survive, a tribute needs to court her audience, win (literal) favors from the crowd, and even create a narrative beyond "terrified child trying not to die." Image-mongering is as important - maybe, given the film's attention to it, even more important - than fighting skill.

Jennifer Lawrence fascinates as Katniss, the coal miner's daughter who volunteers as tribute in order to save her sister and gets transformed by her fabulous stylist Cinna into The Girl on Fire (again, literally). It's a tough role, requiring moments of resolution, uncertainty, panic, heroism, savvy, naivete... you get the picture. She gets a lot of it done with her face: over the course of the film, her expression transforms from the sullen, almost lumpen look of a poor girl in a dirty town into the polished, miserable mask of celebrity beauty, with stops along the way for genuine humanity and even love.

The supporting cast is mostly excellent as well. Donald Sutherland is suitably chilling as the ruthless President who knows better than to root for the underdog, and Stanley Tucci brings sardonic glee to his performance as the Games' television host. (I do wish Woody Harrelson had shown a bit more ferocity as a bitter former champion, but one can't have everything.)

So what keeps it from working? Well, for starters, director Gary Ross opens the film with a bad case of the jitters. He wants us to feel the Depression-style deprivation of Katniss's home in District 12, but instead, we just feel queasy from trying to follow his jumpy, jumbled camerawork.

It's a hack move - misery here, there, everywhere, and over there too, instead of a sustained shot that allows us to enter into the characters' experience.

Later, when Katniss (inadvertently) sparks a riot in District 11, the same problem actually works to obscure the chaos and violence taking place. All that registers is a flashy mess.

And while there is a guaranteed goosing that goes along with teenagers wandering in a forest full of other teenagers out to kill them, Ross somehow fails to capitalize on it. Too often, the tension goes slack, the sense of immanent danger fades, and both Katniss and the audience are allowed to relax in ways they never should.

The Games themselves are full of oddities. Alliances made sense on Survivor, where strategy was king. They make a little less sense when brutality is the order of the day - when you know that you're going to have to kill everyone in your group in order to win, and that they share the same knowledge. Also, the major bad guy turns out to be kind of a wuss. Etc. At times, the Hunger Games part of The Hunger Games seems almost an afterthought - certainly not the grueling nightmare that gets described in the run-up (and, briefly, shown on TV).

Finally: I know the film is part one of a trilogy. But even so, it deserved a genuine ending. They might as well have slapped a "To be continued" over the final shot.

Still: it's a blockbuster film that will stand up to post-viewing conversation, and that's a real achievement. Most striking of all, it's a blockbuster film in which the chief lesson seems to be, "Hey kids, it doesn't matter how good you are or how much you believe in your dreams. It's a cruel and bloodthirsty world, and if you don't get an awful lot of help from an awful lot of people, you're not going to make it. The wicked motto of the Games is, 'May the odds be ever in your favor.' You better hope they are."

Reading rating: three stars.

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Comments

Scott Marks March 22, 2012 @ 5:26 p.m.

I'll make you a deal. I'll see this if you promise to rent "Battle Royale."

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Matthew Lickona March 22, 2012 @ 5:52 p.m.

You're on. (You don't even have to see it.)

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Scott Marks March 22, 2012 @ 10:28 p.m.

You know I will. I see everything...so long as it doesn't star Kevin James. Besides, I promised Siobhan and her son Andrew that I'd take them and your review sparked interest.

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Andy Boyd March 23, 2012 @ 9:39 a.m.

Thank you! My girlfriend was describing this book to me and I was 1000% sure she was talking about Battle Royale. Never seen the movie, but if you describe the books they sound exactly the same.

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