Jennifer Lawrence, girl on fire. That nickname for her character, Katniss Everdeen, fits the actress just as well.
Lawrence is rarely off screen for the riveting two-plus hours of “The Hunger Games,” and the camera loves her: The smile for her kid sister that almost masks her worry. The wide-eyed fear as she steels herself to enter the deadly arena. The sorrow laced with defiance over the death of a friend.
And yes, this 21-year-old does pass for 16. That Oscar nomination for “Winter’s Bone” was no fluke (or else Lawrence is just really good at playing fatherless girls who hunt squirrels).
Katniss lives in a post-apocalyptic Orwellian North America, where an iron-fisted government — the Capitol — keeps the masses starving and cowed. And just to show off its might, the government forces a boy and a girl from each of the nation’s 12 districts to compete in an annual televised fight to the death — the Hunger Games.
While the novel is told strictly from Katniss’ point of view, director Gary Ross, co-writing with author Suzanne Collins and screenwriter Billy Ray, allows us to see more.
The opening scene plunges us right into the Capitol, a candy-colored Emerald City gone wrong, where we watch glad-handing TV host Caesar Flickerman (a foppish Stanley Tucci in a blue ’do) interview the chief architect of the games, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, in a beard borrowed from Mephistopheles).
The scene shifts abruptly to Katniss’ impoverished home, the Appalachian desolation of District 12 (shot in an abandoned North Carolina mill town).
With her father killed in a coal mining accident, it falls to Katniss to secretly hunt outside the district’s wire fence to feed the family. She shares an easy friendship with her hunting partner, Gale (Liam Hemsworth of “The Last Song”).
In short order, the Capitol conducts its annual “reaping” to choose “tributes” to compete in the games. When little sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected, Katniss can’t help but volunteer to replace her.
The baker’s son, Peeta Mellark, is chosen as the district’s male tribute. He’s played by Josh Hutcherson, who may be best known for the “Journey to the Center of the Earth” franchise but really showed his acting chops in the Oscar-nominated “The Kids Are All Right.”
He’s the third point in a potential love triangle (giving rise to Team Peeta and Team Gale T-shirts among the fangirls), but “The Hunger Games” has more serious themes in mind than a “Twilight”-style romance: violence, class and pervasive media. This is intelligent escapism.
The tension builds as Katniss and Peeta board a high-speed train to make their way to the Capitol and prepare for the games.
Their supposed District 12 mentor, Haymitch (a wonderfully nuanced Woody Harrelson), is too drunk to lift a finger. His advice to his charges: “Embrace the problem of your imminent death and know in your heart that there’s nothing I can do to help you.”
Simpering Effie, their oblivious escort from the Capitol (played by an outlandishly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), cares more about chocolate-covered strawberries and table manners.
They arrive at the Capitol, where the snowy-maned despot, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), oozes tyrannical grandeur.
Their best help lies in Cinna (a solid Lenny Kravitz), the stylist assigned to Katniss who knows how to play to the crowd. And Haymitch does sober up enough to explain how to butter up the TV audience and stay alive.
In the book, the events in the forested arena would certainly carry an R rating, with javelins, knives and other forms of teen-on-teen brutality. With quick cuts and blurs, Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “Pleasantville”) keeps the bloodshed within PG-13 bounds, but the effect sometimes diminishes the realism of the competition.
Amid the visceral action, some of the best scenes are the quieter ones, with Peeta and Katniss helping to heal each other’s wounds (physical and mental) and especially with a particularly sad death (you fans know what I’m talking about). This violence is not gratuitous; these deaths are not meaningless.
As the action unfolds in the arena, we see Seneca and his puppet masters in the control room, pulling their digital strings to create a wall of fire here or a pack of genetically altered beasts there, all to keep the viewers entertained.
And we catch glimpses of the citizenry: the voyeuristic gambling among the pampered 1-percenters in the Capitol and, in the districts inspired by Katniss’ bravery, scenes of outright rioting (created by Ross’ director friend Steven Soderbergh).
It’s all foreshadowing, planting seeds of rebellion that will take root in the second installment of this trilogy, “Catching Fire,” arriving in 609 days.
I’m already hungry for more.WHAT’S NEXT
Filming is expected to start this fall in North Carolina and Hawaii for “Catching Fire,” the second part of “The Hunger Games” trilogy, with a script by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”). Director Gary Ross will return, along with any survivors of the first film. It’s due Nov. 22, 2013.
And there’s talk of dividing the third and final book, “Mockingjay,” into two more films.What others are saying
•Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:
“It has epic spectacle, yearning romance, suspense that won’t quit and a shining star in Jennifer Lawrence, who gives us a female warrior worth cheering. Even wearing a PG-13 harness to ensure profitability, ‘The Hunger Games’ gets your pulse racing.”
•Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News:
“As tough-spirited as fans would hope for — and exciting and thought- provoking in a way few adventure dramas ever are. It’s also a far more serious movie than the marketing, and mainstream mania, have led us to believe.”
•Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune:
Lawrence’s “performance here is no less fierce and purposeful. I’d say she carries the movie, except she’s not the only good thing about it.”
•Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: