A solid, well-crafted movie. A tad shy of sci-fi greatness, but exciting and well-acted enough to hold an audience for 2 hours and 22 minutes.
That's my verdict on "The Hunger Games," the first in an expected four-movie series based on the books by Suzanne Collins about a post-apocalyptic North America.
Brought down by natural disaster and war, the continent has been divided into 12 impoverished districts held under the thumb of a decadent, authoritarian Capitol. Haute couture in the Capitol looks a lot like that in Oz, or Whoville.
The annual Hunger Games are the price of a civil uprising — and a way to keep the masses intimidated. A teen boy and girl are chosen by lottery from each district. The 24 fight each other until only one is left alive.
The story's heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers after her 12-year-old sister's name is drawn. Katniss, who long has hunted with bow and arrow along with childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), is paired with a baker's son, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who once showed her a kindness.
Collins skewers Americans' current fascination with reality television, as the games are manipulated to goose interest. Competitors are shown forming "alliances," a familiar tactic on shows like "Big Brother" and "Survivor."
A strong supporting cast gives plum Capitol roles to Wes Bentley as Seneca, who controls the game as it's played; Donald Sutherland as sinister President Snow; and Elizabeth Banks as Effie, who escorts Katniss and Peeta to the games.
Better still: Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, a stylist with compassion who prepares Katniss and Peeta for television, boosting their chances; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, a surviving winner (and a bit of a lush) who mentors the pair in strategy; and best of all, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the oily — and hilarious — host of the games with bright blue hair and eyelashes.
The few bits of humor are sorely needed to lighten a pretty sober story.
While Hemsworth barely appears in this movie, his role will get bigger in the sequels to come, as will the rivalry with Peeta for Katniss' affections.
Meanwhile, Lawrence does a smashing job of playing the stoic, strong-but-vulnerable Katniss in the face of great danger. There wasn't much romantic heat between her and Hutcherson, but it's early in the story line — and that reserve fits Katniss' character.
Director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") holds the much-debated bloody violence back from in-your-face status, but it's still plenty disturbing — maybe too disturbing for less-mature tweeners who have read the book.
It's hard not to get emotionally swept up in the fate of the battling teens, which is what raises "The Hunger Games" a notch above the fantastical but well-crafted "Harry Potter" films and the "Twilight" saga, which falls short on both writing and acting.
At the same time, it's hard to unreservedly love a movie that abhors human suffering as entertainment, even as it exploits it.
"A little hope is effective," the president ominously says at one point. "A lot is dangerous."
"The Hunger Games" leaves audiences starved for a little more hope about the future, both for the franchise and for ourselves.
Contact the writer: