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Underdogs thrive on the ability to retain hope in a world forever shoving them into a corner without the reality of upward mobility or a true chance at overall social change. When they start to believe their numbers can actually overcome that adversity, however, the ruling class must take notice and ready for a fight they may not win. Rebellion will forever be a threat whether one has been squashed in the past or not since you can only kick the underprivileged masses down so many times before they have nothing left to lose. So, when one of the poorest factions of civilization finds its glimmer of hope burning bright, the world takes notice. Compassion will replace cutthroat villainy and allegiances will be made against a common enemy. Hope will turn from the one thing keeping the hoard in line to the battle cry for war.
We enter the dystopic world of The Hunger Games at the cusp of such opportunity. A region in fear, broken up to form twelve Districts ranging in financial stability but all far removed from the Capital City teeming with excess, they’ve been made to live through seventy-three years of the titular games. Paying tribute to the government formed by the winning side of their Civil War, each must offer a tribute of two children ages 12-18 for a televised fight to the death. The winner receives riches beyond belief, but with that reward comes the realization they have been a pawn in the elite’s game of power. The lower class cannot live for themselves as the possibility of seeing brother, sister, son, or daughter ill-prepared and running for their lives on the big screen will forever hang over them.
And so begins the seventy-fourth games with its mix of lower districts breeding volunteers for battle and the peasants who know they won’t last a second before a canon blast signals their death. But this year brings with it the wild card of a teenage girl risking her life to save a twelve-year old sister pulled from the lottery. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) isn’t your usual poor child trying to survive in a world with the odds forever out of favor, though. She is a hunter and expert archer who has been the ‘man’ of the house since her father was killed and mother rendered emotionally useless as a result. Roaming the forests with her ‘friend that is a boy’—because we can’t sense the romantic tension with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) from their jovial sarcasm and comfort—she has been killing game for years.
Humans are a far cry from animals, however. Watching Katniss thrust into the challenge with District 12 cohort Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), we see the fear in their eyes and the horrible realization only one can return if either. The Olympic-level hoopla commences and the twenty-four tributes engage in a pre-war contest for sponsors: showing off their skills and learning each other’s weaknesses. A series of politicking interviews create a manufactured light as they’re coached to toe the party line and give their homes recognition instead of wallowing in the crippling fear we know hides underneath. With cartoonish television personalities Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) and the confident cool of show producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the innate desire of the public to root for victory and watch blood spill shows how apt this satire of our own penchant for reality tv is.
Based on the first novel in Suzanne Collins‘ best-selling trilogy, she, Billy Ray and director Gary Ross do a phenomenal job compressing the action into a manageable two and half hours. The plot finds itself rushed at times—unfortunately making contrivances more clichéd and obvious—but you can’t necessarily fault them once seeing the breadth of mythology to include. We feel the plight of the lower classes and experience Capital City’s arrogance controlling their lives. Like the Hunger Games battlefield’s ability to create pitfalls and creatures at will to force tributes into fights they’ve been avoiding, the President Snow (Donald Sutherland) led aristocracy pulls the strings to lord their superiority and keep order amongst the masses. And while this movie sets the stage with its action-packed war of attrition, you can’t help see a District 11 revolt as foreshadow for the civil unrest to come in subsequent entries.
Gorgeously shot by Clint Eastwood‘s regular cinematographer Tom Stern, the look and feel is reminiscent to the close-ups and shallow depth of field in Bruno Delbonnel‘s framing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Abstract compositions of an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket’s eccentric public relations coordinator show details like her make-up’s smaller circular lips transposed on her own and the great focal changes looking through Amandla Stenberg‘s Rue’s eyes gazing into the sun-streaked sky of leaves or becoming deaf like Katniss after an explosion draw you into the action. Quick cuts and kinetic pans mask the brutal violence onscreen to retain the coveted PG-13 rating needed to draw the literature’s target demographic, but suspense and the aural assault of screams keep the stakes as high as we need them to be for the story to work.
The sprawling cast is solid with a drunken Woody Harrelson‘s Haymitch—although fans tell me Brendan Gleeson‘s overweight curmudgeon would have been more appropriate—a reserved Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, and the tributes showing hubris (Alexander Ludwig‘s Cato), cunning (Jacqueline Emerson‘s Fox Face), and more despite getting little time to be more than bland stereotypes. And while Tucci and Banks standout by their gravitas, one can’t forget Hutcherson and Lawrence. His Peeta runs the gamut of emotions and exudes the selflessness inherent to his character. You believe he cares more for Katniss than himself against a façade of indifference, understanding why through a constantly repeated flashback. As for Lawrence, this is the type of role she revels in. Like Winter’s Bone before it, she excels at characters infinitely more mature than their age. Her Katniss not only takes up the responsibility for her family, but also the plight of the Districts desperately wanting more.
The Hunger Games therefore proves a more than competent look into a story with obvious allusions to our own degrading world’s loss of humanity as technology and wealth replace the compassion born from personal connection. With an aesthetic that Harry Potter took close to four films to achieve and Twilight has yet to find, Gary Ross continues his surprisingly short filmography of under-rated gems that started with Pleasantville. I can imagine the potential carnage to come both politically and physically as the fences between classes come down. With Katniss proving the mettle of the common man and Capital City being stripped of its infallibility, the path towards revolution doesn’t seem too far away. I only hope Collins wrote it successfully in her books so the films can continue on this fantastic foundation and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion.
 Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close
 Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, center) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, right) in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close
 Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close