May the odds be ever in your favor.

First of all, lets put the Twilight comparisons to bed.  Where the vampire ‘epic’ was a parade of clichés, pale skin and vampire sparkles The Hunger Games is an artful, honest piece of pulp filmmaking.  Although the expectations for The Hunger Games are massive (it’s already been tagged as the next big tween thing) Twilight hasn’t exactly set the bar high.

To say the film has leveled these bogus, insulting comparisons is an understatement.  So, please leave Bella and her not-so-merry band of admirers behind when you enter the theatre this weekend, they will only sully your experience.

the-hunger-games-posterThe Hunger Games begins in a dystopian future.  The government of Panem has squelched an uprising and split the population into 13-districts.  During a peace-settlement district 13 was destroyed.  The 12 remaining are forced every year to participate in the annual ‘Hunger Games.’  Once a year a lottery is held (known as the Reaping) in each district where one male and female teenager are selected as a ‘tribute.’  The tributes are placed in an arena to fight to the death (gladiator style) in front of the entire world on television.  After 23 tributes are disposed of the last remaining is crowned the champion.

We find Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) on Reaping Day of the 74th annual games.  She’s hunting game outside the fences of District 12 to feed her family.  Her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) meets her to exchange pleasantries about the absurdity of the situation.  As they venture back into town we’re given our first glimpse of District 12: the roads are bare, markets scarce and people emaciated.  Director Gary Ross does not paint a pretty picture of day-to-day life.  At the Reaping Katniss’ 12-year old sister is chosen as tribute.  Desperate, she volunteers to take her place, saving her sister’s life.  Accompanying her to the games is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the stocky son of a local baker.

From here our heroes are whisked away by hover train to the Capitol city by some very odd chaperones.  Elisabeth Banks plays Effie Trinket, a mousy woman who tries desperately to straddle the line between District 12’s lack of décor and the Capitol’s excesses.  Also along for the ride is Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) who acts as the tributes ‘mentor.’  Haymitch once won the Hunger Games and celebrates each day by drowning himself in a pool of alcohol.  As soon as the tributes enter the train they are showered in decadence.   Any food they can dream of is at their fingertips.  Extravagant clothes, waiters and platinum doorknobs (Ms. Trinket is especially fond of those) line the walls of their 12th floor penthouse.

Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is the District 12 stylist.  He’s reserved in his praise (he’s one of few who acknowledge their impending doom) but understands his role in helping his tribute’s chance at survival.  His costumes for their public introduction instantly make them fan-favorites and crafts a narrative that he hopes can help Katniss or Peeta survive.

Ross crafts the beginning of the games with a vicious pace, whipping his camera around almost incomprehensibly.  The shaky-cam is nearly over used (Bourne Identity-style) but here it displays the chaos and violence in a terrifying way.  This sequence will not be forgotten by many leaving the theater.

The actors are almost universally great.  Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerhouse performance as Katniss, carrying nearly every frame of the film.  Lawrence has the gravitas to carry such weighty material but her vulnerability in the face of such atrocities is what grounds her humanity.  Harrelson and Banks bring much-needed levity to the situation.  Stanley Tucci looks like he’s having the time of his life playing Caesar Flickerman (the Hunger Games announcer and MC.)  And Lenny Kravitz is a knockout as Cinna.  His quiet confidence is impressive and that of a much more seasoned actor. Unfortunately Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) struggles slightly against the camera.  Although he is saddled with some very silly dialogue – which doesn’t help – Lawrence’s incredible presence often dwarfs him.

The film isn’t perfect.  At 2:30 hours long it sometimes sags under the weight of its source material.  The book was heavy on world-building which the movie must race through.  And yes, it does have derivative elements (see: Battle Royale) but the tone of The Hunger Games is what Ross nails.  He brings indie-film sensibilities to a film that could have easily succumbed to the hype.

From the outrageously colorful getup’s in Panem’s capitol to the washed-out grey’s of District 12 Ross has done the unthinkable.  He’s taken a book series with a rabid-following and stripped away the excess.  What’s left is a human story that hits all the fan-girl/boy plot points while letting the subtext bubble just below the surface.  It’s a troubling parable and an exceptional piece of pop culture.

By the way, I don’t care who she chooses: Team Katniss for life.