The Hunger Games (2012)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, Paula Malcomson

Directed by: Gary Ross

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Teen action blockbuster The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future called Panem, in which twelve Districts are controlled by a central metropolis, the Capitol. Each year, in recompense for an uprising that took place 74 years ago, the districts must offer up two 'tributes', a girl and a boy, who will fight to the death in a bloody, televised Battle Royale-style manhunt: happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be always with you.

While the rich city-slickers of the Capitol swan around like Technicolor 1980s futuristic fashion plates – all shoulder pads and Cyndi Lauper make-up – swilling lurid cocktails, dining on gluttonous Henry VIII-style banquets and betting on the carnage of the games, the denizens of the districts must mine the coal and harvest the crops that fuel this decadent lifestyle. Warlike District 1 may run to its own elite gladiatorial school to train future tributes, but down at the other end of the fiscal scale, the folks of District 12 live a harsh, hand-to-mouth existence, eking a living from the barren woods and mountains like refugees from the Depression; if the Capitol is glitzy New York of LA, then District 12 is rural Kentucky. Diddle ding ding ding..

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games

It is of course in downtrodden District 12 that we find our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers as tribute when her little sister's name is drawn from the ballot. Together with fellow sacrificial lamb Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she must travel to the Capitol and make her mark, before being thrown to the wolves.

So far so Running Man meets Lord of the Flies. But Katniss is no latent savage. Once released into the wild, as the killing commences (and when it does it's really quite shocking) she wisely keeps her distance. We know she's a crack shot with a bow and arrow (she's a renowned hunter in her native district) and that she has the steely nerve required to kill if pushed; but we also know she doesn't want to. Easier then, to let the bully boys and girls from Districts 1 and 2 thin the herd while she sits it out in the treetops, waiting for the moment when killing becomes a necessity.

What makes the film so interesting, however, is the ambiguity surrounding her actions: is she really as noble and selfless as she seems, as she tries to help out other contestants and risks her life to safe Peeta's, or is she actually playing the game, enacting a role for the public as shamelessly as an X-Factor contender with a dying mum?

Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence play the game in The Hunger Games

And while her calm determination and canny flair for the theatrical may raise her profile with the all-important TV audience, her contempt for the games and disregard for the rules make the show's bosses, and the ruler of Panem, President Snow (Donald Sutherland – who else?), uneasy. I've not read the books but I suspect that when The Hunger Games 2 hits our screens, Katniss is gonna pay...

So all in all, while I'm not sure this is the 'important story of a generation' it's been declared, it's nevertheless an intelligent, absorbing tale that plays with ideas of good and evil as skilfully as the Harry Potter movies – and provides today's teens with a fesity new heroine to kick Bella Swann's skinny butt.

Is it a warning, to switch off Big Brother/The X-Factor/The Voice/Britain's Got Talent and go and do something more interesting instead, before next thing we know we're glued to a teenage death match? 'No one watches and they don't have a game,' Katniss's childhood sweetheart Gale points out, but Katniss simply laughs. Of course everyone will watch: the name 'Panem' is presumably taken from the old Roman panem et circenses, bread and circuses, the spectacle of death served up to appease a restless populace. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lenny Kravitz, Woody Harrelson and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games

Morals aside, the film looks amazing – the opening of the games is sheer drama, Ben Hur meets the Olympics – and the central characters give strong, credible performances, backed up with a starry array of grown ups, from Woody Harrelson as the grizzled Hunger Games survivor who acts as mentor to the District 12 kids, to Stanley Tucci as the blue-pomaded pompadour who hosts the live coverage of the games and Lenny Kravitz (!) as Katniss's sympathetic stylist, Cinna. And the unsettling ending certainly left me wanting more: roll on the rest of the trilogy, the odds are certainly in its favour...

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