‘May the odds be in your favour’ isn’t quite as snappy as ‘May the force be with you’ but I can see it becoming the latest playground catchphrase as hordes of impressionable schoolkids act out their version of this story, which admittedly is a worrying thought.
But I wouldn’t blame them for this is gripping, nail-biting stuff from beginning to end; a smart dystopian, sci-fi thriller on a surprisingly epic canvas drawing from multiple sources like Brave New World, 1984 and Lord of the Flies. It also owes a debt to more contemporary reference points such as the moderately entertaining The Running Man and the blood splattered cult shockfest of Battle Royale from which most comparisons will be made.
But this is Battle Royale-lite with a 12A certificate allowing a moderate amount of violence and horror without alienating too much of its target audience, which one imagines to be kids the same age as its principal characters. However, the entire audience I saw it with were middle-aged adults and pensioners so go figure.
But it's not so much the inevitable violence and gory wounds peppered throughout that might raise eyebrows over its certificate, it's the idea of children being forced to murder each other for a spectator sport ‘justified’ by political, commercial and entertainment purposes that is continuously chilling as well as the sustained fear that grips the participants that is harder to stomach than the actual violence.
In a distant post-apocalyptic future the rebellious masses, essentially the grotty working classes or slave labour are sectioned off in a dozen rural and industrial zones, each numbered districts lying far from the high tech glitz of new cities and their wealthy, supposedly fashionable citizens who wear outrageously gaudy costumes and wigs akin to the 18th century pomp and decadence of western aristocrats and royalty.
Every year, a boy and a girl are randomly selected from each district to enter the hunger games to supposedly compete for the honour of their district as the ruling elite gamble on the outcome, watching every move on television, an elaborate variation of the X factor.
Selected from district 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after volunteering to protect her younger sister whose name was initially called. With only moments to say goodbye to loved ones, the terror on their faces is palpable as the full horror of what is about to happen hits home. Already the hair on the back of my neck was standing up.
And so begins a period of combat training, intermittently supported and sponsored by a drunk mentor, an ex-games survivor (Woody Harrellson in entertaining form).
Katniss brushes up on her archery skills whilst her district ‘partner’ Peeta resigns himself to failure and suppresses long held feelings for Katniss, fully aware that when the time comes, he might have to murder the love of his life. This simple idea gets the mind racing as one starts to analyse the danger of forming relationships and alliances during the games.
Once the game is underway we root continuously for Katniss and occasionally others as the various twists and turns unfold. Much of it is predictable, but always satisfyingly delivered. There are a couple of terrific set-pieces and a frightening ‘encounter’ towards the end but it’s the sustained tension throughout that meant that although I was never bored, it is ultimately quite draining.
Finally I should admit that whilst half the film’s success is down to its ideas and execution, the rest is entirely due to Jennifer Lawrence whose critically acclaimed performance in Winter’s Bone was clearly no accident. As well as frequently running for her life she also runs the full gamut of human emotion in a finely judged and understated performance and a lesser actress would have irreparably weakened the experience and that’s what this provides, an experience.