Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

The obvious comparison to make when discussing The Hunger Games is a certain sparkling-vampire franchise that’s light on acting chops and heavy on schmaltz, its on-screen incompetence masked by glossy production values and pin-up faces that belong to awkward actors. But let’s not spend any more time on that series-that-shall-remain-nameless, because, in every way, shape, and form, author Suzanne Collins’ immensely successful Hunger Games trilogy of novels—as well as this, the first Gary Ross-directed film adaptation in what’s expected to be a quartet of blockbusters—trumps the subliminally aforementioned commercial juggernaut. The Hunger Games is darker, more grown-up, and, in the movie’s case, embodied by an impressive cast of top-shelf performers.

So why is it so difficult to fully praise Ross’ mostly engaging work? The answer lies, more than likely, in the limitations of staging a story about 24 kids forced to kids kill each other while people watch for entertainment as a PG-13, bound-for-lunchboxes piece of accessible viewing. And, for a large chunk of The Hunger Games, Ross pulls it off, handling the potentially hackneyed teenage romance and heavily internalized turmoil of protagonist Katniss Everdeen (a real-deal superstar performance from Jennifer Lawrence) with aplomb that’s atypical for such an all-quadrant, mainstream product. But, eventually, underage bodies need to hit the floor, and when they do, The Hunger Games loses its way.

When The Hunger Games works, though, it’s efficiently commanding. As the steely Katniss, Lawrence owns the screen, with her ability to simultaneously conjure sympathy in her softer moments and come off as physically imposing whenever it’s time to shoot that bow and arrow. And those opportunities happen often. The Hunger Games takes place in a futuristic wasteland beaten down by tyrannical rule and sectioned off into 12 districts, all of which harbor lower-class citizens scrounging for food. To give edible awards to one lucky district, the Powers That Be hold an annual competition in which one young boy and one young girl from each district gets chosen lottery-style—in what’s called “The Reaping”—to battle it out with the other 11 areas’ representatives in a televised, by-any-means-necessary death match. And after District 12 resident Katniss’ prepubescent sister gets selected, she volunteers herself and unknowingly is paired up with local peer Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s long had a crush on her.

As one can infer from its premise, The Hunger Games is much harder science fiction than the film’s trailers and commercials would lead non-book-readers to believe, and for much of its run, Ross’ straight-faced production, like Collins’ source material, presents a dystopian world full of interesting practices. The kids’ training regimen, for instance, feels like something out of The Running Man, and how the games themselves are manipulated by the villainous government (computer-generated beasts, rules drastically altered to their content) are inventive enough to leave one wanting an entire set within the competition’s parameters.

Only, such a film would benefit from an R-rating, because the safe-for-kids flick Ross and company have conceived too obviously obscures its violence. The second weapons are drawn and blood is about to shed, the camerawork becomes distractingly erratic, turning the combat scenes into incomprehensible eyesores. The underlying intent is clear: The little girls sitting in the theater are too innocent to see one kid slice another’s throat open with a machete, so, to ensure that those wee-sized gals recommend the film to friends, it’s smarter to visually distort the violence. But why shoot the film’s grislier sequences like those insufferably frantic Saw flicks?

For a film whose entire third act revolves around in-your-face brutality, the incoherency of The Hunger Games’ action is a glaring problem. The rest of its pieces, though, especially Lawrence and memorable supporting turns from Woody Harrelson (as Katniss’ and Peeta’s disheveled mentor) and Stanley Tucci (as a flamboyant, Ziggy Stardust-like on-air personality), congeal together in ways most Teen People-friendly movies rarely do. Not to mention, it takes a special kind of young adult property to have marbles big enough to have one youthful character’s face get chewed apart by poisonous wasps. Those sparkly vampires wouldn’t even dare.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult