Jennifer Lawrence plays the rather conspicuously named Katniss Everdeen, a young woman living somewhere in a North America which has gone to the dogs through war and now suffers life under a totalitarian regime in the far-future. Where she lives, the equally conspicuously named Panem, possesses in its constitution a highly questionable law which dictates that, every year, one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 19 from each of the country's dozen or so districts must face off to the bloody death in a large gamezone carved out of the forests in what are the eponymous 'hunger games'.
The reasons for this brutal regulation pertain to the dictatorial government wanting to keep up the traditions of honour and willpower synonymous with its national identity, but these days everybody largely agrees it is down to the sheer fact that said contest makes for damn good television. Questions pertaining to how old the nation is and what they did before television was invented are not answered...
As a character, Everdeen is nobody special - nobody in Panem is, because the grip the rulers have on the country keeps anybody from broadening out too far into becoming anything at all. She maintains her friendships; lives in her rudimentary village; takes care of her younger sister and spends enough time fooling around with a bow and arrow to become a bit of a crack-shot. Will the skill come to benefit her later on in the tale?
Disaster strikes when, through reasons I will leave unspoilt, Everdeen winds up appearing in the yearly contest having been selected as the female to represent her district. This plunges Lawrence's character into a whole new world of colour; energy and fame, not to mention life-threatening danger on account of having to do battle with a motley group of compatriots from the other districts which range from robust, muscular black males on the very brink of being too old to compete to mousey younger girls too young to possess any real clue as to what is even happening.
"The Hunger Games" is not an especially exhilarating character piece, but it does do the basics required of both the action and horror (and, in part, romance) genres especially well. The film is an energetic post-modern fusion of all sorts of things ranging from "Predator" to "TRON" by way of the 2000 Japanese film, to which it seems to owe its greatest debt, "Battle Royale".
It allows its premise and the sheer scope afforded to it in terms of whatever content it might possess to make a scathing attack on modern American (even Western) free-market consumer entertainment. This is unsubtly presented to us for the first time quite early on when one character quips about the contest that "...if no one watched (on TV), they (the government) wouldn't do it", eventually becoming a film depicting a society with a violent, deranged spectacle at the very core of its identity.
Indeed, while nothing in the world (that we know of) can quite match the barbarity of what Gary Ross' film depicts here, we should be aware by now that WWE is adored by millions; heavyweight championship boxing matches can make billionaires out of its participants in one evening and that some of the highest grossing films of all time are action (or violence) packed blockbusters.
This begs the question: how do WE - the film-going audience - react to the violent action when it finally starts? Are we entertained? Do we fall into the trap of rooting for a character because we want them to succeed? Is it not too often the case that the target audience for the film roll from multiplex screening to multiplex screening absorbing the latest actioner?
By the time the "Games" themselves have begun, the film has earned the right to take us to where we go. To complain that they are episodic, and that the set-pieces & killings might happen in any order, seems silly, but the best action films have always had a sense of grace and timing to their second unit sequences as events unfold around their characters: "Terminator2" and "Jurassic Park" might be two good examples from recent history.
The screenplay possesses very little of any terrific profundity, while the lead's taking in under her wing of a fellow female contestant far too young to survive on her own merely proves what we already knew: she is a good older sister - a more affecting arc may have been to establish her earlier as a bully to her sibling and have her return much kinder. Irrespective, there is enough in "The Hunger Games" to get stuck into and enjoy.