The Hunger Games ★★★★

There are several things going on under the surface in "The Hunger Games". One’s appreciation of the film definitely depends in part on how well one picks up on those things. However, even if taken only at face value, "The Hunger Games" certainly doesn’t disappoint with its exciting mix of action, adventure, drama, and science fiction. The movie clocks in at 142 minutes, but it zips by quickly and pleasantly.

The theme of female empowerment and the social commentary that run throughout the movie are viscerally effective and intellectually stimulating. Look, for example, at what happens when reality television is taken to the extreme or at how television—any medium, really—can be misused by the powers that be to spread propaganda and, by extension, control people’s thoughts and feelings.

Certain aspects of the convincingly depicted dystopian future society, such as the vastly different living conditions for the rich and the poor, hit closer to home than others and therefore resonate more strongly. And speaking of emotionally resonating scenes, a particularly tragic death that occurs in the arena raises the stakes and is completely deserving of the emotional response it evokes.

During the course of the 74th Hunger Games, the proceedings gain an interesting meta element of sorts. The viewer is watching "The Hunger Games" to be entertained; the people in the Capitol of Panem (the fictitious nation in which the story is set) are watching the Hunger Games to be entertained. The sobering realization that the former and the latter share the same viewpoint of the big event adds another layer to the film.

Director Gary Ross—working from a screenplay written by him, Suzanne Collins (the author of the source novel), and Billy Ray—does a solid job of keeping everything together and creates a coherent, engaging whole. Judianna Makovsky’s wonderful costume design and the elaborate production design by Philip Messina play an integral part in the overall success of "The Hunger Games", strikingly emphasizing the differences between life in the Capitol and life in the districts.

My primary complaint about the movie comes down to this: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the protagonist, is sometimes too much of an observer, sometimes too passive, in her own story. And more than once when she finds herself in a dangerous situation, external succor arrives, conveniently precluding the heroine from having to make any tough moral choices. I have not read the novel on which the motion picture is based (yet), but it seems that allowing a darker side of Katniss’s personality to shine through would have benefited the film. Nevertheless, Katniss is a breath of fresh air in a genre traditionally dominated by male lead characters.

Lawrence is remarkably good here. Largely thanks to Lawrence’s nuanced acting, Katniss Everdeen turns out to be a complex, compassionate, intelligent, resourceful, self-confident protagonist who again and again defies one’s expectations in delightful ways. In the role of Peeta Mellark, Josh Hutcherson comes across as rather wooden at first, but once it becomes clear that his character is supposed to be like that, his restrained performance makes Peeta quite likable. Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson play the colorful characters Caesar Flickerman and Haymitch Abernathy, respectively, with appropriate verve, while Liam Hemsworth turns in a bland effort as Gale Hawthorne. Primarily using his voice and body language, Donald Sutherland elegantly hints at President Snow’s dictatorial nature.