It's hard to fathom that The Hunger Games had only one director, Gary Ross. The movie comes across as two different films--the first half sluggish, non-linear and muddled, and the second half an average dystopian thriller. Unfortunately, the sum of its parts is less than great--which is a major disappointment considering the cultural significance of its source material.
The Hunger Games is clearly on a fast track to being one of the most lucrative dramas of its time (presumably setting the table for a successful franchise) but Ross continually misses his marks, unlike his film's heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who is an expert archer. Ross had ample opportunity to explore the unique theme of violence which results from conflicts of gluttony and poverty, but appears to be more focused on moving his film along at a quick clip with little complexity. Ultimately, what we are left with is a hastily strung-together series of scenes rather than a cinematic narrative. At 144 minutes, that's a bit of a slog.
The Hunger Games, the novel, is all about savagery--literal and figurative. But The Hunger Games, the movie, pulls its punches. I'm not a big fan of violence in art, but when a film has the opportunity to explore the humanity--or lack thereof--that is defined by violence, it is perhaps the most potent art form of all (witness A Clockwork Orange or Straw Dogs). The Hunger Games, at its core, is the story of how more than 20 kids are murdered as sport, yet by not exposing its carnal brutality, the movie loses an opportunity to devastate its audience. I'm fairly certain that in Lionsgate's desire for a PG-13 rating, they opted to homogenize the violence.
Additionally, Ross chooses to shoot most of his scenes employing very shaky camerawork (steadicams are quickly becoming an oxymoron). The effect yields diminishing returns. Instead of treating his film as an epic with sweeping camerawork, he produces something geared more toward the small screen. As a result, he shrinks his themes along with his scenes.
There are a few things to praise in the movie--above all, there is Lawrence, who ever since her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, continues to astonish with her young adult contradiction of innocence and maturity. Also strong is Josh Hutcherson, who portrays Peeta Mellark.
But the adults in The Hunger Games are ridiculous. Granted, author Suzanne Collins paints her mature characters with a sloppy, wide brush, but on film, they come across as nothing short of cartoon-ish. Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and especially Woody Harrelson chew up some pretty expensive scenery, mostly for naught.
No doubt, some will feast on The Hunger Games for its ability to entertain. But it left me hungry for substance. Here's hoping that the second course is more carefully prepared.