In The Hunger Games, the sometimes thrilling, sometimes disturbing, sometimes cartoonishly silly adaptation of Suzanne Collins' mega-selling young-adult novel, Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen - a strong-willed teen from a broken-down backwoods home, with a depressed, debilitated mother, and a young sibling to care for.
If that sounds familiar, consider the little indie that Lawrence starred in two years ago: Winter's Bone, hardly a franchise wannabe, but a powerful film with four Oscar nominations (including best actress and best picture). Lawrence was Ree Dolly, a strong-willed teen from a broken-down backwoods home, with a depressed, debilitated mother and two young siblings to care for.
As an audition reel for The Hunger Games, Lawrence's turn in Winter's Bone must have mattered immensely: Ree and Katniss are parallel-universe doppelgangers. And it's not just the similarity of the roles, either, but also the environments the young heroines inhabit. In Winter's Bone, Ree lives with her family on hard Ozarks land, surrounded by poverty and despair. And so it is, too, in District 12, the bleak coal-mining country where Katniss goes hunting in the woods (with bow and arrow) for squirrel and deer, lest she, her mother, and sister starve.
Gary Ross, who directs this elaborate, and tonally odd, adaptation of Collins' novel, pans the sooted faces, the ragged clotheslines, the muddy roads of District 12 - it's like watching a gallery of Dorothea Lange photographs from the Great Depression.
In fact, it's the postapocalypse, a North America ruined by war and revolt, in which 12 districts form the nation of Panem, ringing a city called the Capitol. The outlying areas are populated mostly by the underclass; people work the mines and farms to feed and fuel the citizens of the city, a hub of media and fashion, where the men and women fuss around in makeup, frocks, and big poufs of colored hair. Imagine Versailles at the time of Marie Antoinette, only with bullet trains and towering glass skyscrapers.
So what is the Hunger Games? It's a Super Bowl-scale event in which each of the 12 districts selects two teens, a boy and a girl, to compete in a fight to the death. They are called tributes, selected by lottery. And only one will remain when this lethal take on TV's Survivor is finished. (The games are a form of punishment and intimidation, instituted 74 years earlier after an uprising almost took down the government.)
And when Katniss' wee sib, the pigtailed Primrose (Willow Shields), is selected for District 12's team, the heroine of The Hunger Games steps up to take her place. Katniss finds herself partnered with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son who has long admired Katniss. (His crush confession provides a teen-romance moment of levity in the midst of the sci-fi/fantasy dread.)
As they prepare for the games, Katniss and Peeta are mentored by a tribute of yesteryear, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) - a guy drowning his survivor's guilt in booze. They are also tended to by a stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, with eyeliner), assigned to make over these District 12 hicks so they look glammy and cool.
It's easy to see The Hunger Games' appeal, both as a trilogy of books and now a film: It's about kids competing against kids, forming alliances and then betraying those alliances, and going after one another with cutthroat intensity. In other words, high school.
But it's high school taken to a fictive plane, a realm that incorporates video games, reality TV, futuro-retro fashions, and Truman Show-esque, God-is-in-the-control-booth themes of manipulation and oppression. And while The Hunger Games has its share of fantasy elements, they are modest by comparison to the epic sorcery of the Harry Potters, or the vampire shtick of the Twilight Saga.
There's no getting around the grim premise of The Hunger Games, and no getting around the sight of adolescents chopping each other up and blowing each other away. The violence isn't graphic, but it's ever-present.
Lawrence, with her determined scowl and aura of hyper-awareness, anchors the movie, as she should. Hutcherson is funny, stoic, steady-on as her running mate - as in running for their lives. Harrelson is less hammy than you'd imagine, given his wardrobe, mock-tragic mien, and pronouncements along the lines of "Embrace the probability of your imminent death!"
And then there is Elizabeth Banks, virtually unrecognizable as the frivolous Effie Trinket, a public relations maestro in corset and hats, "handling" her District 12 charges with a ditsy, but sinister, busy-ness.
It is with Panem's power elite that The Hunger Games gets, and looks, most outlandish. Stanley Tucci is the pompous TV interviewer, his hair in a bun, tinted blue; Toby Jones is the foppish TV host; Wes Bentley, with a close-cropped, contoured beard that looks more like a facial tattoo, is Seneca Crane, the Gamemaker who oversees, and often orchestrates, the action - and literally unleashes the hounds when things get worrisome; and Donald Sutherland is the president, a grave figure speechifying from on high.
There's a lot going on in The Hunger Games - pop-cult commentary, an exploration of the violent undercurrents that run through society, a not-so-subtle look at the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. There is teen angst, there is teen romance, and something that smells like teen spirit.
But it also smells very much like a movie with money on its mind - not altogether successfully balancing its loftier ideas with a sense of superficial whimsy and Vegas-meets-Wizard of Oz production design.
With one eye on the box office (and the sequels), The Hunger Games doesn't play it safe, exactly. But it plays it awkwardly.
The Hunger Games
**1/2 (out of four stars). Opens at 12:01 a.m. Friday
For a slide show, stories, and more on "The Hunger Games," go to www.philly.com/hungergames.