Set in a post-fallout United States – renamed ‘Panem’ – we are quickly introduced to lead protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a mature, headstrong 16-year-old living in an industrial town somewhere in District 12, the furthest of the enslaved districts that serve the decadent, all-powerful Capitol. Katniss spends most of her time hunting game in the wilderness in order to provide food for her little sister Prim (Willow Shields) and widowing mother (Paula Malcomson), but the interjection of the annual ‘Hunger Games’ – a bloody tournament where two young tributes between the ages of twelve and eighteen are selected from each district to fight to the last – threatens to tear apart her family-orientated existence.
Katniss and neighbouring baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) end up being transported to the Capitol as the two tributes for District 12, where they are prepared for the impending bloodbath by their enigmatic mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and stylist Cinna (rock star Lenny Kravitz). The Hunger Games clearly wears its influences on its sleeve – there’s a great deal of Orwellian oppression, glimmers of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a pinch of Margaret Atwood and more than a tip of the hat to both Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and Kinji Fukasaku’s film version – yet for a 12A mainstream teen sci-fi/fantasy to even come close to resembling such esteemed dystopian texts is, in itself, remarkable.
This is no simple Mocking Jay-mimicry. Ross’ film has a defined universe of its own, populated with genuinely emotive, living characters and a tangible sense of despair and decay. Lawrence is perfectly cast as Katniss, a role that draws substantially on her turn in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010). Both Katniss and Ree are emotionally resilient, father-less figures, forced to grow up and fend for themselves and their families desperately before time. The Hunger Games looks poised to usher in a brand new hit franchise and deserves all the credit it gets for its confrontational subject matter, delicately-orchestrated fight sequences and sci-fi sensibilities. For teen audiences, films don’t get much darker – or smarter – than this.
Daniel Green | @DanGreen1986