[Contains distractingly straw-like wigs and SPOILERS!!!]
While I can think of several good-to-great films with a similar premise, pitting modern-day (or futuristic) gladiators against each other for the pleasure of voyeuristic viewers, I thought the way The Games were organised and staged here was far more plausible than in Death Race 2000 or Series 7: The Contenders, where competitors rampaged randomly around populated areas, carelessly (or deliberately) endangering the public. Confining the mayhem to a malleable arena, similar to the holo-deck suites from Star Trek: TNG, made far more sense to me… and it also gave the writers more control over how their story played out, allowing them to force the competitors into confrontations, and then pinning that “deus ex machina” manipulation on the games-master! I also thought they did a much better job of depicting the selection process for competitors, and explaining the plausible political impetus behind that process, than Battle Royale managed. And they worked the Reality TV angle very well too, establishing that the whole thing was as much a PR-based popularity contest, as it was a physically exhausting fight for survival. So, while I don’t think this film had anything particularly new to say about “bread and circuses”, I do think it was a smarter, slicker, more sincere and emotionally satisfying satire than the other movies I’ve mentioned, despite being aimed at a younger audience.
Another feather in the film’s cap is its heroine, ‘Katniss Everdeen’, who’s resilient, resourceful, compassionate and courageous, as well as a crack shot with a bow… but not above faking affection for a fellow competitor, in order to gain favour with her unseen sponsors. I mean, I don’t doubt that she has genuine feelings for her male counterpart, ‘Peeta Mellark’ (Josh Hutcherson), because he’s such a sweet (and good-looking) guy, but their “showmance” began as a disingenuous act for the cameras, and I’m fascinated to see what will happen now that the winning couple are back in their home district, and Katniss has to face the kinda-boyfriend she left behind. Sometimes love triangles in films and TV shows can come off as a bit uneven, with the odds clearly stacked against one of the suitors, but here I honestly couldn’t guess who she’s going to end up with… if anyone. I think that ambiguity makes for a far more compelling story, and it puts more meat on the characters’ bones, as well as giving the actors a chance to really show their stuff. Jennifer Lawrence certainly rises to the occasion, both physically and emotionally, and easily proves that she deserves all of the acclaim she’s currently enjoying… while off-camera she seems very smart and funny and generous too. I also appreciate her stance on female body-image issues, and (for what it’s worth) I think she looks much cuter in the post-release interview clips where she’s put a little more weight on.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks was barely recognisable in her crazy Kabuki-meets-Regency get-up, playing the kids’ blithely oblivious chaperone ‘Effie Trinket’… a part that Banks was very keen to bag, since she was already a big fan of the books. I didn’t recognise Isabelle Fuhrman (as ‘Clove’) either until I was checking the credits, but it’s nice to know that the creepy girl from Orphan is still as kill-crazy as ever.* And Amandla Stenberg was totes adorable as ‘Rue’, whose untimely death quite rightly inspired a riot in her home district. Sniffle.
* I don’t mean to suggest that Fuhrman herself is creepy, just the characters she plays. In fact, I shelled out for the fancy 3-disc edition, and the third disc’s featurettes are all about the rival Tributes, and how much fun they all had behind the scenes, from their earliest training sessions to the promotional “mall tour” signings… so if you’re a fan of Fuhrman, Stenberg, Jacqueline Emerson (aka ‘Foxface’), or Elven Rambin (aka ‘Glimmer’), I’d recommend tracking down a copy.