The Hunger Games

Already one of the biggest money-making films in history, the allure of The Hunger Games has been the subject of much scrutiny. I think it's enough to say that, given how many of the other box office champions of recent years include The Dark Knight, Titanic, the Twilight franchise, and the last Harry Potter movies, it's a testament to American audiences' - and indeed, worldwide moviegoers' - taste for dark, troubling fare.

You're probably already familiar with the film's plot: in a dystopian future (perhaps 200 years from now), North America has been renamed Panem, a nation divided into twelve (or is it thirteen?) districts. Each year, twenty-four teenagers - one boy and one girl from each district - are randomly selected to fight each other in a televised duel to the death.

Though ostensibly these "Hunger Games" are designed to keep the populace from rebelling, the point of the film (and the Suzanne Collins novel it's based on) seems to be more about our national obsession with reality television, and the rather sadistic manipulations that go on behind the scenes in order to keep us enthralled.

To this end, I think The Hunger Games is closer in spirit to the little-seen 2001 indie Series 7 than it is to the Japanese shocker Battle Royale, to which it has often been compared. Series 7 was a mockumentary made to look like an actual television program, in which a number of ordinary people were given guns and told to hunt down and kill each other. Like The Hunger Games, a sort of romantic relationship between two of the contestants is played up by the show's producers. But Series 7 and Battle Royale have a far more cynical bite than The Hunger Games, which ultimately becomes more of a survival tale about its protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), even though from the very outset she seems destined to win.

The film's earnestness works in its favor, however. Director Gary Ross could have repeatedly cut back to the fatuous audience in the Capitol (the sole wealthy city in Panem, filled with snickering, out-of-touch fashionistas) every time Katniss does something heartfelt, but he holds back. The result is an altogether satisfying adventure film that expertly balances tension, pathos, character, science fiction, and sociopolitical commentary. It's a worthy blockbuster that neither talks down to its audience nor gets caught up in its own self-importance.