As a cinematic snack, "The Hunger Games" is meatier and less cheesy than any of the "Twilight" movies.
That might be lukewarm praise, but this adaptation of a teen-lit bestseller about a ruthless reality show doesn't rely on lofty technique or penetrating insight to hit its target. It's a streamlined fable with enough zing to keep the franchise flying until the next round.
Jennifer Lawrence propels the movie as reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen. In a futuristic riff on "Winter's Bone," the teen archer hunts squirrels for her widowed mother and younger sister while federal stormtroopers keep the cloistered peasants under surveillance.
The feds are on guard against another uprising like the one they suppressed seven decades ago. A legacy of the civil war is that two children from each district are chosen in an annual lottery to compete in a televised death match called the Hunger Games. Only one of the 24 contestants will survive the outdoor hunt and reap the rewards.
When her little sister's name is pulled from the fishbowl, Katniss quickly volunteers to take her place. Under the tutelage of drunken ex-champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss is hardened into a killing machine beside her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). But along with hand-to-hand combat, they must learn face-to-face publicity skills, as the contestants collect survival rations from their sponsors.
"The Hunger Games" is dressed as a dark satire of soulless entertainment, but like Katniss' adversaries in the PG-13 hunting scenes, it fails to develop a distinctive identity or go for the throat. The foppishly coiffed elites who cheer for blood are a cliché in such movies, as are the smarmy telecast host (Stanley Tucci) and the callous control-room overlord (Wes Bentley).
Adapting the novel by Suzanne Collins, director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") sacrifices social perception for emotional payoff by keeping the focus of Katniss. Lawrence seizes almost every scene of this overlong movie, and her charismatic mix of toughness and vulnerability leaves love interests Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth starving for attention.
While a last-act regurgitation of "Romeo and Juliet" produces a flavorless ending, Lawrence is the living promise that the next course of "The Hunger Games" will give us more to chew on.
"The Hunger Games"
Two and a half stars (out of four) • Rating PG-13 • Run time 2:22 • Content Violent thematic material and disturbing images