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Mainstream America needed a good ten-dollar dystopia.

We don’t do the dystopia thing much. We’ve always thought of ourselves as better than that. Historically, it’s always been those war-torn Europeans that have been, to quote one of our propaganda ministers, scared by phantoms of lost liberty. But as our own empire crumbles and we feel more vulnerable, we’ve finally started to understand the power of invoking that fear to win elections — and finally, now, to make blockbuster entertainment.

Even in science fiction, mainstream American entertainment usually likes worlds with a balanced, eternal conflict of good and evil. In these worlds no enemy, no foreign presence if you will, can resist being inevitably destroyed by our sheer fortitude and moral righteousness. Since the millennium, however, we’ve started to ditch our collective emo/goth response to the by-product of ruling the world — becoming completely numbed creatures with nothing to conquer — and begun to embrace our oncoming doom like a mature country. This may be why this movie is kicking John Carter’s ass up and down the megaplex: our encroaching fear that the future will now be not about thriving but merely surviving. Sparkly vampires? Magic schoolboys? Later for that.

The film adaptation of Hunger Games is subtler than its source material, which is wise, expanding its base from the YA fiction crowd to, well, everyone. Here and in the novel, said dystopia is a canny synthesis of right- and left-wing paranoia — here, the North American countries have merged into one, with a haughty, silly, indifferent ruling class that operates from “The Capitol.” Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (a refreshingly unflashy Jennifer Lawrence), takes the place of her doomed younger sister in the annual games, in which modern-day teen gladiators fight to the death.

There’s a lot of other interesting ideas, like a middle class bred to hunt the poor and a series of districts that cleverly subdivide workers into their essential output, but director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) wisely keeps the focus on author Suzanne Collins’ original concept. Collins claimed she came up with it while channel-surfing back and forth between the Iraq War and reality TV, and it’s that link between high-casualty duty and low-rent fame that is the soul of this project, the link between national propaganda and tabloid drama. In this world, the people who run the games, including brilliantly-placed small roles for Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz, are fabulous, beautiful people, and the cannon fodder are not just working class, they’re downright ordinary. This dystopia offers up not just a political commentary but a social one: as Harrelson’s character puts it, to survive in the Games, you have to be popular. And when the games begin, the “mean girls” are downright deadly girls.

It’s provocative, bordering on silly. Ross knows how to take potentially ridiculous ideas and give them a real heart, however, and he takes a refreshing hands-off approach with very little flash and zero condescension, rendering this future as a foregone conclusion. Yes, there’s a dramatic Hollywood score, but compared to similarly big-budget flicks, Hunger Games almost feels like a documentary. Ross is smart enough to let the small moments fill in for backstory: when her neighbor Peeta shares a crust of bread with Katniss, you know  more about their world than any narration could tell you, especially when they then both find themselves surrounded by rich desserts on the train to the Games. The pageant that introduces the contestants is as silly and deceptive as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade covered by Fox News. The big event is kicked off by a TV show that’s part teen prom, part American Idol, and part Oprah interview.

This is where Hunger Games distances itself from ideological forebears like the Japanese Battle Royale and Stephen King’s The Long Walk: the media force Katniss to fight not just for her life but her very soul. Whereas Peeta knows how to play the popularity game, she’s unsure of just how much of her identity she should trade in for that life-saving likability; the result is the world’s highest-stakes coming-of-age movie. Ross pulls his punches a bit at the end, leaving us with a less manipulative, less confused, and less interesting Katniss than the one in the novel — which is doubly disappointing since this flick, the first of a trilogy, somewhat necessarily feels like an opening installment and not a standalone work of art. But having broken several box-office records, the pre-summer juggernaut Hollywood was banking on will get plenty of chances to make itself even more compelling. May the odds be forever… oh, you know.

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