Movie Review: “The Hunger Games” Feeds On The Frenzy

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

I’m baffled. I have followed Linsanity with rapt joy, agonized over where Messrs. Manning and Tebow would buy their next split levels, and was plum torn up when the Kardashian-Humphries nuptials fell apart. How then, I ask, did “The Hunger Games” phenomenon, now a theater-packing film by Gary Ross, totally fly under my radar?

I must remind myself to get an app to keep me apprised of popular culture, just in case I get an iPhone. But happily, in the meantime, no harm done. Now all caught up, I’m pleased to report that everything’s up to date in the fictitiously fascistic, dismal future. Which means it’s basically just the same. As Yogi might say, “It’s ‘1984’ all over again.”

It’s also “A Brave New World,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “THX 1138” all “Rollerballed” up into one, with a dabbing of the myths, lest the Olympian Gods feel neglected. Like Mark Twain said, steal from one and they scream plagiarism; steal from a bunch and it’s called research. Author/co-screenwriter Suzanne Collins shows good taste in her sources.

Truth is, the new gang peddling this pessimistic but vital cautionary about the evil wiles of autocracy has paid attention. An umpteenth permutation, conceived long after a scary portion of George Orwell’s prophecy has already become a part of our sociopolitical woodwork, it mightily hones its message for yet another, hopefully receptive, generation.

It’s a darn solid production, too, benefiting from some fine performances and an astute, eye-dazzling use of the technological magic now available to filmmakers. So welcome to Panem, a country ruled by one dictatorial party, formed after a storied, but never really explained, holocaust. Just in time, we’re ushered in on the eve of the Hunger Games.

A cruelty wrought by the ruling elite for various despotic reasons, not the least of which is to remind the proletariat that they are powerless scum, there is aberrant comfort in knowing that tyrannical regimes haven’t really developed any new sadisms. Panem is taken from the Roman expression, “panem et circenses.” That’s bread and circus to us.

The games are just like our Super Bowl. Except, whereas we gorge ourselves to death, the two youngsters picked from each of twelve districts are soon facing starvation and 23-to-1 odds they’ll be killed by their peers in a fight-until-the-death contest of survival. It’s nasty stuff, and probably telling that our muckraking must sink to such dire depths.

Sadder yet, because all that vestigial flotsam still floats around in our albeit enlarged brains, we like this stuff. Think about what you’re really doing when you eagerly bite into the juice-spurting, textural, life sustaining warmth of a thick steak, bone-in of course. Well, until we evolve out of it, we’ll just keep knocking each other over the head for fun.

For all the gizmos and gadgetry attending the much ballyhooed games, it’s not very complicated. Kill or be killed. And, just like it was back in the Roman Coliseum, being a fan of a blood sport hasn’t changed. Glued to TV screens throughout the realm, folks root for their homies in this dastardliest of reality shows. Naturally, we have our favorite.

Essentially the Jeanne d’Arc of the tale and nobody’s political pawn, by gum, not if she can help it, Katniss Everdeen is exquisitely realized by Jennifer Lawrence. Pleasing our romantic sense, she is poor but beautiful, good to her widowed mom and, after my big sis, the best older sibling in all the realm. Which is actually why she has come to this fate.

You see, nuttily decadent Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the amalgam of Lady Gaga, Marie Antoinette and Bette Davis’s Baby Jane who picks the participants’ names from a bowl, initially draws Primrose Everdeen. But Katniss won’t have it…not her little sister, and offers herself up to the ritual instead. Hooray! A volunteer. Tributes, they call ‘em.

The powers that be like that. Easily misconstrued as patriotism and concurrence with the Reich, it also injects the masses with a more opiatic drama. The better to subjugate you, my dear. Joining Katniss in the lavish, pre-games ceremony at the Capitol is her male counterpart and unlikely romantic interest, Peeta Mallark, well acted by Josh Hutcherson.

Once the ingredients are assembled, what follows is a vigorously engaging primer on exactly what to emulate if you wish to make a killing in the teen entertainment market. Into a large, colorful landscape, put equal parts love, action, and altruism. To that, add a big smattering of hope (y’know, the kids are sure we will glom all the Social Security).

Separating this film from less worthy grasps at the box office brass ring, director Gary Ross expertly electrifies the formula with inspired casting, fine pacing and a good feel for the original material. But more important yet, in a market force-fed with a lot of empty, processed junk, “The Hunger Games” serves up big smart helpings of food for thought.

“The Hunger Games,” rated PG-13, is a Lionsgate release directed by Gary Ross and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Stanley Tucci. Running time: 142 minutes

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