THE HUNGER GAMES MOVIE is so much better than it needs to be. The franchise is already poised to be the Next Big Thing; had its casting been less thoughtful or its political message diluted, the film still would've broken box office records and moved plenty of tie-in nail polish. But this first installment in a projected trilogy is as smart, compelling, and as politically pointed as any fan of its source material—Suzanne Collins' great novels—could hope.
A quick summary for the cultural illiterates who haven't read the books: The Hunger Games is a dystopian YA trilogy set in a future United States, after a massive war has destroyed much of the nation's infrastructure. The US—now called Panem—is divided into 12 districts, each of which specializes in some area of farming or industry, while the nation is ruled from the Capitol, a city populated by a well-fed leisure class whose lifestyle is supported by the exploitation of the districts.
Every year, two children from each district—called "tributes"—are chosen in a lottery and forced to fight to the death while the nation watches the live, televised spectacle. The fear inspired by these "Hunger Games" help the Capitol to maintain control over the districts—but when a girl from the poorest district volunteers for the games in order to save her younger sister, suddenly the districts have a tribute who represents hope not just for survival, but for change.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is the kind of heroine modern girls deserve: She's smart, she's capable, and she's single-mindedly focused on survival, not on the charms of her fellow tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The games are at once a reality TV-style pageant and a grueling survival test, and Katniss is determined to win so she can return to care for her sister. She's aided in her preparations by an excellent support staff: Drunken former tribute Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, great), prissy Effie (Elizabeth Banks, fantastic as always), and her stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, not terrible!).
The most common critique of the film so far is that it downplays the teen-on-teen violence of the books—that the killing that commences as soon as Katniss sets foot in the arena isn't brutal enough. But this movie is, in part, about how grotesque it is that suffering is turned into a spectacle—the irony of calling for more blood in The Hunger Games is up there with the fact that you can buy Team Peeta underpants. Fans of the books will find much to nitpick (I certainly did; Katniss' flaming dress looks like a discount novelty firework), but the movie gets right the things that matter. Crucially, it relies on reality as a touchstone in representing the poverty-stricken districts—the Capitol might be a fanciful sci-fi city, but District 12 looks a lot like Appalachia, and the dehumanizing helmets worn by the Capitol's riot cops look pretty familiar too. The critique of an insensate, consumerist culture is as pointed here as it is in the books—and its characters are just as relatable and strong.