In what was once North America, the ruling class demands an annual sacrifice of the 12 districts that once rebelled: each must select two teens, a boy and a girl, to battle in a wooded arena to the death, with the last one standing crowned victor. In the poor mining District 12, the tributes are ace archer Katniss (Lawrence) and muscly baker Peeta (Hutcherson), who forge an awkward friendship as they're thrust into the televised competition. Trained by Haymitch (Harrelson), promoted by Effie (Banks), groomed by Cinna (Kravitz), interviewed by Caesar (Tucci) - it's simply overwhelming.
That the games are a reality TV show adds a sharp edge to the story. Everything is manipulated by the Gamemaker (Bentley) for higher ratings, while the prowling-lion President (Sutherland) uses the games to maintain control of a wealthy minority over the outlying poor. Visually, this disparity is striking, with the Capitol's residents decked out in lurid Marie Antoinette-style garb, while District 12 is essentially the same squirrel-roasting backwood where Lawrence lived in Winter's Bone.
Even though action scenes are botched by the shaky-cam, Ross keeps the pace brisk, punctuating the drama with heart-stopping moments (and one great jolt).
And Lawrence beautifully holds the focus, giving us a character we really care for even when she doubts herself. She and the terrific Hutcherson play their budding camaraderie with authentic reticent interest, which adds romantic tension since Katniss has another boy (Hemsworth) back home.
But where the film really kicks into gear is in the political subtext, which erupts at one point to hint at the story still to come. Katniss' defiance of the organisers' expectations scares them to death because it empowers the oppressed majority to stand up for themselves as well. While the film has been compared to Japan's Battle Royale, the more interesting parallel is The Truman Show, as the god-like producers try to balance both fear and hope to maintain their tamed public, then worry that Katniss may have opened Pandora's box.
Run time: 142 mins
In Theaters: Friday 23rd March 2012
Box Office USA: $408.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $691.2M
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Production compaines: Lionsgate, Color Force
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Fresh: 232 Rotten: 44
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Gary Ross
Producer: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Willow Shields as Primrose Everdeen, Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, Paula Malcomson as Katniss' Mother, Amandla Stenberg as Rue, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Alexander Ludwig as Cato, Isabelle Fuhrman as Clove, Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Leven Rambin as Glimmer, Nelson Ascencio as Flavius, Jack Quaid as Marvel, Mackenzie Lintz as Tribute Girl District 8