1. I feel I need to say this out front about The Hunger Games, since I'd never read the young adult book and wasn't quite sure what I was in for: This movie has a lot of on-screen child murders. Now, maybe on the page, this was less jarring, with the whole inherent textual not-having-to-look-in-the-cold-dead-eyes-of-a-slain-child advantage. But on the massive screen, I gotta say, it takes a lot out of a viewer to see a 13-year-old girl impaled by a trident. Maybe I'm too sensitive? Maybe child murder is all the rage these days? (Apparently, since all this child murdering only earns a PG-13 rating.) It is one thing to read about a competition in the Not Too Distant Future in which young adults have to kill each other to survive. It is another altogether to watch the life slowly drain out of a cute kid's face. The Hunger Games wants to be a mass entertainment that ties in everything from romance to female empowerment to vague warnings about totalitarianism to reality-show satire to a dissertation on the ceiling for Stanley Tucci Wig Dadaism. But I can't get past those dead kids. Either this movie needs to be a lot darker than it is, or I'm getting a lot older than I had realized. Maybe these are not mutually exclusive.
2. The premise will be familiar to anyone who has walked past a bookstore in the last four years. Thanks to a vaguely detailed rebellion eight decades earlier, various "districts" must sacrifice a young adult male and female to participate in yearly battle to the death, watched by the gluttonous overclass for sport. This sounds like your typical Running Man allegory about The State, except with a stoic Jennifer Lawrence rather than a grunting Arnold Schwarzenegger. But The Hunger Games wants to have its dystopian postapocalyptic nightmare cake and eat it too. It sets up its competition as some sort of cruel and chilling metaphor for the exploitation of the underclass ... but in the end it really just wants to crown a winner. Particularly if the winner can fall in love along the way. This is an awfully serious test for young lovers to pass, this crippling futuristic society of child murderers. Used to be they just had to overcome their parents and ministers who wouldn't let them dance in the town square.
3. The movie is shockingly long—it's 146 minutes; again, I haven't read the book, but I can't fathom how they left anything out—but the first hour has a professional, workmanlike sheen, setting up our plotlines and our society in believable, economical (relatively speaking) terms. Director Gary Ross is an old pro, and he knows how to move the story, such as it is, along, introduce everybody who needs to be introduced, and then get out of the way. (This is not Twilight hackwork.) Unfortunately, he's not getting out of the way for anything special, and once the actual "games" begin, the movie begins bursting apart at the seams, its overstuffed plot popping jean buttons in every direction. There's a ridiculous attempt at a Twilight-style love triangle, about three side characters too many, and an annoying habit of dropping in a deus ex machina any time the plot walks itself into a corner. Also, I'm not really sure I understand the endgame of the game's "director," played by Wes Bentley with jaw-dropping facial hair that looks like a corn maze seen from space. He keeps manipulating the pieces on the gameboard, but never with any real rhyme or reason, and all told, his character doesn't make a lick of sense. He ends up with a specific, distinct fate, and I haven't the foggiest idea why.
4. Jennifer Lawrence is an actress I've never quite gotten on board with, but she holds the film together as Katniss, which is vital, considering she's essentially in every scene. She has one real emotion—steely reserve—but that's enough to carry us along here, the only real tool she needs. The movie is populated with overqualified actors as loony little side characters, from Elizabeth Banks as some sort of wasteland HGTV host, Tucci and Toby Jones as extremely colorful commentators, and, most memorably, Woody Harrelson as a former Hunger Games champion who mentors Lawrence. (Harrelson is somehow deeply invested in his character and clearly stoned, which is no small trick.) And some of the action scenes do work, particularly a nifty scene that will send shivers down the spine of anyone who has stumbled across a wasp's nest. (They're "genetically engineered" superwasps, as much an indictment of this futuristic society as all the child murdering.)
5. But sorry, the movie is oddly blithe about its central premise. How can this movie set up this monstrous society and this brutal game of genocide and expect us to not only cheer for someone to "win," but also hope she finds someone to kiss in the end? I understand that this is the first of a trilogy, and perhaps the (obvious, stilted) class-struggle story set up here has a more logical next step there. But I'm still not sure this story has earned the right to have scenes in which 14-year-olds are hacked up with a sword and then end without much acknowledgement of what we just saw. There's a lot in The Hunger Games that is entertaining. But that doesn't make it any less queasy. I am glad someone taught Katniss how to shoot an arrow, though. Perhaps she and Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin should have been friends. I think he would have enjoyed this future.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.