Familiar Failure

Skip 'The Hunger Games,' and rent the remarkably similar 'Battle Royale'

How is it that author Suzanne Collins has no lawsuits pending against her for plagiarizing Battle Royale?

The author of The Hunger Games says she's never heard of Battle Royale, the Japanese novel about kids pitted against each other in a death match; it was made into a great but controversial movie back in 2000. That said, the similarities are undeniable—and the film adaptation of her book plays like nothing but a watered-down version of Battle Royale.

Given the shocking premise—in a futuristic society, children are tasked with killing each other off in a televised competition—one would expect The Hunger Games to be something worth taking in, even if its idea is not original.

Well, it's not a good movie.

Lionsgate has put its enormous franchise in the hands of Gary Ross, the man who directed Seabiscuit. This film about a futuristic world calls for an original eye with a knack for sci-fi ... and they go with the Seabiscuit guy? On top of that, they only gave Ross an estimated $78 million to make an epic. That was a lot of money 25 years ago, but it's chump change in today's cinematic-blockbuster world.

The result is a film that lacks visual imagination. The first half is irritating to look at. Stars like Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and Toby Jones don silly wigs, pounds of makeup and prosthetic teeth that make them look like clowns. Everything around them is drab and unimaginative, so they stand out and look goofy. Goofy can be OK, but in this story, it's discordant.

Cast in the role of Katniss Everdeen—a starving teen who survives on squirrel meat courtesy of her bow and arrow—is the pleasantly robust Jennifer Lawrence. She's a great actress, but she's physically wrong for this role. She looks like a healthy woman in her 20s who eats nutritious snacks every two hours, with three squares a day and a consistent workout regimen. She does not look like she's starving. Nevertheless, she does bring emotional and intellectual depth to the role, so they could've done a lot worse.

Also worth watching: Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, who is chosen with Katniss to represent their district in the Hunger Games. He's maturing into a fine actor.

The games themselves are full of malevolent teens who we get to know absolutely nothing about. They're trying to kill each other, and that's about it. None of the young actors beyond Lawrence and Hutcherson do anything to distinguish themselves.

Ross employs a terrible shaky-cam for his action scenes. Perhaps this was done to mask the violence and preserve a PG-13 rating. Perhaps this was done because he can't shoot an arm-to-arm combat scene worth dick. The man has a good eye for horseracing, but he seems totally clueless with action/sci-fi.

Of the mature actors, only Harrelson does anything worth watching; he transcends the hilarity of his getup. Tucci plays one of the hosts of the Hunger Games, and I could not get beyond how stupid his teeth, hair and clothing look. Banks, who plays sort of the mother of the Hunger Games, looks equally ridiculous, and is saddled with a strange, Julia Child-like accent. Donald Sutherland, as the president, just looks sullen, while Wes Bentley ... well ... who really cares about Wes Bentley?

The film failed to pull me into its world. The Hunger Games comes off as something in which Lionsgate didn't have enough confidence, with Ross left trying to shoot a 2 1/2-hour, grand-scale epic with the budget for a 90-minute, moderately priced movie. It looks cheap.

Battle Royale just came out on video in the United States for the first time. It's a far more effective entertainment option if you are looking for a film about futuristic kids battling to the death.

Of course, this film is breaking box-office records. Perhaps now, for the inevitable sequels, Lionsgate will trade out the director and makeup personnel, and throw some more money at the production.

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