The Hunger Games (PG-13) ★★★½

Review Date: March 23rd, 2012

In a post-Harry Potter, Avatar and Lord of the Rings world, the descriptors ''sci-fi'' and ''fantasy'' conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations, rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality, filled with human characters, tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller, wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle, as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match, on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching, mature, young adult fiction adaptation, diffused by occasional meandering, but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.

Panem, a reconfigured, post-apocalyptic America, is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling, The Capitol created The Hunger Games, an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under ''tributes'' from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute ''Reaping,'' teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid, becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a meek baker's son and the second tribute, Effie, the resident designer, and Haymitch, a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor, Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.

The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town, haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach, and even when the story segues to larger arenas, like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall, it's all about Katniss.

For fans, the script hits every beat, a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big, Pleasantville and Seabiscuit), and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem, Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny, he's discreet, he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director, Ross employs a distinct, often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story, but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.

But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television, sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs, ''What if nobody watched?'' speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately, they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become ''stars'' of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up, put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved, Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting, but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate, but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader, but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes, complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.

By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours), there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes, and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action, hiding in trees and caves, waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily, Lawrence, Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths, and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned, the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed, even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive, but it doesn't go down without a fight.

What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes! rated this film 3 1/2 stars.