MANILA, Philippines - Midway through "The Hunger Games" you realize that maybe our world hasn't changed much from that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Entertainment still rules, the way it did at the height of the Roman Empire. The more violent the entertainment, the more it appealed to the common folk. The emperor in fact routinely declared days of feasting and games whenever he detected public disenchantment with his dictatorial reign. Games then meant fights to the death in the arenas of the far-flung outpost of Gaul (modern-day Spain and France) and in the crowning glory of the then civilized world, the Colosseum... fights to the death of gladiators about whom many a novel has been penned and many a motion picture produced. Today, we prefer to watch do-or-die UAAP ball games. But first things first...
In the far-off future, in what looks like America after nuclear war has largely destroyed it, society atones for the sins of the warring forefathers that brought them to this age by holding the old Roman blood sport of gladiators clashing until there's only one last man standing. "Welcome to the 74th Annual Hunger Games," declares President Snow (Donald Sutherland, yes, "24" Kiefer's father, as broodingly authoritative as ever).
Panem (from the Latin for "bread") hosts the games this year. Accordingly, in a public "reaping," the names of 12 boys and 12 girls, each pair representing Panem's dozen districts, are harvested by lots in public. Thenceforth known as Tributes, the prepubescent children will do battle, their feats aired live on television for the delectation of the community which presumably does not include grieving parents.
If you wonder how anybody can find this sort of thing entertaining, the resounding answer is: Yes, the millions of readers of the books on which this film is based obviously find just cause for their collective amusement. It's virtually the same generation raised on the Harry Potter books and films as well as the Twilight Saga vampire novels and movies. Undoubtedly, writer Suzanne Collins will continue laughing all the way to the bank for a few more years, for she co-writes the screenplay of "The Hunger Games" with Gary Ross and Billy Ray.
By then the film's lead actors - Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth and Willow Shields - could well be cinema's new heartthrobs on both sides of the Pacific and the Atlantic. In this installment, the name of the character played by Shields, Primrose Everdeen, has the misfortune of being drawn first. However, she has the good fortune of having sister Katniss (played by ingénue Jennifer Lawrence) volunteer to take her place in the deadly competition.
Production designer Philip Moss and costume designer Judianna Makovsky invest "The Hunger Games" with the look and feel of dystopia through eerie juxtapositions of ultra-modern décor chic with nature and the great outdoors. You have 16-year-old Katniss and just as young partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) dressed gladiator-like in gleaming black synthetic body-fits, yet have Katniss armed with but an ancient bow and arrow.
Our teen warriors ask Haymitch Abernathy, the combatants' first mentor, played with flare by Woody Harrelson, what advice he can give them. "Embrace the probability of your imminent death," he replies. He adds that the pair should court the people they encounter because the food or other help these strangers offer can make the difference between triumph and despair. The gladiators then partake of their final meal as Tributes, the fare offered to those about to die, before they take residence, a la the Final 9 of "American Idol," in a designer apartment with all the accoutrements of the good life
The following days see Katniss and Peeta undergoing training by skilled martial artists, especially archery. Why archery, seasoned cineastes might ask. Answer: The battleground is a jungle. But what a jungle it proves to be, for here and there lurks danger, made telegenic by field mines exploded by remote control now and then to the merriment of the live telecast audience. How Katniss and Peeta survive, if they do and to what extent, is the central action of "The Hunger Games."
Gary Ross, director of the Oscar-nominated "Seabiscuit" (2003), helmed the film and gave it a creeping suspense that sustains the work for much of its running time. It helps that Clint Eastwood's favorite cinematographer, Tom Stern, shot the opus with the texture of film noir. Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling edited it to music by the redoubtable James Newton Howard. Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik produced the movie for Lionsgate and Nina Jacobsons Color Free Productions.
"The Hunger Games" runs for two hours and 20 minutes; MTCRB has given it a PG-13 rating.