Review: 'The Hunger Games'

Credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate/AP Photo.

Dystopian.  Post apocalyptic.  Long after Justin Bieber is gone.   Welcome to the world of "The Hunger Games."

Based on the best-selling young adult book series, our first glimpse into this world is a television interview - Stanley Tucci's ostentatious, blue-haired Caesar Flickerman interviewing head Gamemaker Seneca Crane on a set that resembles"American Idol's."  Appropriate, since Flickerman would be the result if Ryan Seacrest fathered a child with Phyllis Diller. More about him later.

Then the fun begins.

What was once the United States of America is now the country of Panem, a totalitarian regime comprised of 12 Districts under the sadistic rule of the Capitol.  Its iron-fisted grip around its citizens' necks tightens once a year during the dreaded Hunger Games: a tournament to the death between 24 teens, one boy and one girl from each district.  The unwilling participants are called tributes, as in a tribute to the Capitol as a reminder of how it subjugated the districts all those years ago.  The Hunger Games are big television: like the Super Bowl, only with lots of death, better technology and no commercials.  Even the Reaping, when the teens are drafted into The Hunger Games, is shown across the nation.

Enter our hero, Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence.  Katniss is a hunter who sneaks beyond the electric fence surrounding abject poverty of her District 12 home to provide for her mother and sister.  Beyond that fence, she meets up with her handsome friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and also retrieves the bow and arrows she hides in a tree.  Unlike the heroine in that other teen literary sensation, Katniss will not fall in love with a vampire or flirt with a werewolf; she has far less fantastical problems in this gritty reality.  Every second she lives is the result of a life and death decision - including her heroic decision to volunteer for the games in the place of her little sister Prim when the latter's name is called at the Reaping.

So, what about the actual Hunger Games?   In a word: spectacular.  Under Gary Ross' direction, the games seem like an actual annual event he's filmed before.  You don't need 3D and those pesky glasses to feel right in the middle of 2D action that's so realistic, you might pull a hamstring just watching it.   Visually, the futuristic control room where Seneca Crane and his team manipulate the arena, both challenging and attempting to kill the tributes, is reminiscent of the one in "The Truman Show," only 3000 times cooler.

The supporting cast is terrific as well.  Josh Hutcherson plays fellow tribute and potential love interest Peeta Mellark with subtlety and quiet confidence.  Also great is rock star Lenny Kravitz in his much buzzed-about role as Cinna, Katniss' stylist and sounding board.  Elizabeth Banks plays the outlandish Effie Trinket with relish, Woody Harrelson nails his role as the alcoholic former Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy, and Stanley Tucci brings so much fun to Caesar Flickerman, he could have his own movie or TV show - heck, his own breakfast cereal!  Flicker Flakes, anyone?

It's not all good, though. Donald Sutherland's dictatorial President Snow shows a tremendous amount of restraint: too much, as he never seems quite as scary as he should be. That lack of fear that blunts the emotional impact of the film's ending, but doesn't negate at least two other scenes that'll have you either cheering or will bring you to tears.

Ultimately, though, "The Hunger Games" doesn't work without Jennifer Lawrence.  This future Oscar winner - a bold statement, yes, though not for this role - is the embodiment of Katniss Everdeen, and movie audiences will be smitten.

As far as comparing "The Hunger Games" books to "The Hunger Games," the film?  I'm now a fan of both.

Four out of five stars.