I’ve not read the books on which this is based, and I’ve not yet seen Battle Royale to which it is (often unfavourably) compared, so what I have to say on this might be more than usually ignorant.
The film opens with titles explaining how a future US dystopia comes about after a set of civil wars leaves a set of twelve impoverished districts having to give ‘tributes’ each year, in the form of one boy and girl to compete in the eponymous games, in a televised gladitorial fight to the death in an artificially recreated wilderness environment. The inhabitants of Districts 1 and 2 gladly volunteer, as they are trained for months in advance and the winner usually comes from their ranks, while the inhabitants of the outer Districts are usually little more than fodder for the brutal entertainments, greedily watched by the pampered, preening and effete inhabitants of the mega-city, and watched desparately by the inhabitants of the outer zones, who want the fleeting escapism from their poverty in the pride of seeing their representative do well, and their compatriot come back alive.
Katniss Everdene (Jennifer Lawrence) and her friend/boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) live in the outlying District 12, scraping a living by poaching, and living on the edge of the law, hoping to evade the “Peacekeepers”, fascistic guards who collect the “tribute” each year, and fantasising about a life free from the Hunger Games and the tyranny they represent. When Katniss’ young (and weak) sister, Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen, Katniss offers to take her place. She, and fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are taken to the city to be prepared (their mentors include Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz) before being launched into the games.
Firstly, I did enjoy the film; I feel I need to say that as the rest of my comments may seem a little niggardly. This film is a simple story, well told, and with a host of solid performances, not least from Lawrence herself, who seems to have taken her Winter’s Bone persona and given her some archery lessons. And it’s that sense of ‘nothing much new’ that is my main reservation about the movie. Even without Battle Royale, you can play ‘spot the influence’ here. There’s bits of Logan’s Run, bats of Lord of the Flies. A little of Rollerball, a bit more of The Truman Show; almost every dystopian sci-fi seems to have contributed a little. The ‘Peacekeepers’ even resembled the Federation guards from Blake’s Seven, though I’m sure that’s just a bizarre coincidence. The only ‘new’ thing seems to be the ‘structured reality’ slant that modern tv offers, and that the Games’ organisers here use, imposing a politically useful narrative on the slaughter. That lack of a strong original identity is not necessarily a killer problem but I wanted it to contribute something more itself. Perhaps, when the inevitable sequels get made, it will.