'The Hunger Games'
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG-13, for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images, all involving teens
Runtime: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Bottom line: The odds are in our favor
"The Hunger Games" have officially begun.
This science fiction movie based on Suzanne Collins' incredibly successful young adult novel is arriving with the kind of anticipation usually reserved for Marvel or DC Comics superheroes.
Thanks to massive sales of Collins' books (24 million in print so far) and some brilliant social media marketing, "The Hunger Games" movie has already sold more advanced tickets than any other nonsequel in history, according to ticket retailer Fandango.
Industry analysts predict it's going to make around $90 million during its opening weekend, putting it in the same range as "Iron Man."
That is remarkable for a relatively low-key action movie (it cost a modest $80 million to produce) built around an antisocial teenage girl forced to compete against 23 other teens in a televised death match.
With its macabre subject matter and inherent political and social commentary, this is not standard blockbuster material.
Nor is it terribly original, truth be told.
The society depicted in "The Hunger Games," called Panem, looks awfully similar to the totalitarian, two-class society in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."
Years ago, Panem was decimated by civil war. The victors established the Capitol, a posh city run by ruthless dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland), where plastic surgery is all the rage and all needs are provided for.
The people of the Capitol live luxuriously because Panem's other 12 districts slave and toil to produce goods for the Capitol.
Each year, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games. A male and female "tribute" are chosen from each district during a ceremony called the Reaping (these terms are becoming part of our cultural lexicon, so go ahead and adopt them now).
The teen tributes battle to the death, a concept borrowed from Koushun Takami's "Battle Royale" and its film adaptation. The Capitol spins the games as a unifying national event, but it's really a vicious means of oppression.
Because this twisted event is broadcast live for all of Panem, it's also an extreme version of real reality television that hocks inhumanity to a voracious viewing public.
When her younger sister's name is called at the Reaping, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place.
Katniss leaves behind her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whom she might love, and enters the games with her district's male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who secretly loves Katniss.
All of this is highly derivative, but the combination of the class warfare backdrop, the bloody game itself and the love triangle, all told with riveting pacing and staggering emotional impact, make for a cinematic experience that will capture viewers' hearts every bit as much as Collins' novel.
Parents should take the PG-13 rating literally. This is not suitable for pre-teens, and it may be too much for some early teens who don't yet understand the concepts. It helps if parents talk to their kids about the book and movie, especially about why such a seemingly outlandish story is relevant to teens' lives.
The film is a genuine achievement. The casting is ideal and the performances are spot-on. Lawrence is the perfect Katniss. She revives the toughness and maternal instincts she showed in "Winter's Bone" but also embodies the irresistible ingénue aspect so essential to Katniss.
Director Gary Ross uses his camera like Collins uses her words, delivering devastating moments of violence and heart-pounding action but focusing the story always on the soul of this complex girl who is repulsed by the brutality of the games, even as she is forced to hunt down her competitors to survive.
The film also deserves credit for what it is not. Katniss isn't a lovesick girl endlessly whimpering over two boys, like Twilight. The games don't become a prolonged bloodbath like "Battle Royale." And the politics don't drift into propaganda.
This is a faithful adaptation and a genuinely great film. Fans of the books will love it, and newcomers may find themselves racing to a bookstore as the credits roll.
These will be games we will always remember.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.