Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games, hiding out in tree tops, shouting out rude names

As if there were any doubt left on this point, The Hunger Games seals the certainty that studios that once rejected aspirations towards art in favor of a fervent craving for franchises are now slipping to a point where nothing less than full-on phenomena will do. Suzanne Collins’s trio of young adult novels following the adventures of Katniss Everdeen arguably already qualified for that term, but the whole process of bringing it to the screen has been an exercise in prolonged nurturing of hype. Collins had already sold tons of books (literally), but she’s managed to move many more in recent months as the media mavens at Lionsgate have effectively made the pending arrival of the film adaptation seem less like a fresh piece of entertainment and more like a national obligation, as unavoidable as the bloody competition of the title is in the fictional nation of Panem.

Perhaps the more compelling evidence that Hunger Games heralds the next step to a post-cinematic era is that even most of the reviews from respectable critics are framed around considering the effort from director Gary Ross primarily against other films that are designed as pop culture sensations rather rather than cogent, thoughtful, meaningful pieces of storytelling. It’s not how good or bad the film is on its own terms; it’s about how it stacks up against Twilight and its hellspawn sequels. Grading on a curve is one thing, but this is systematic grade inflation, changing the parameters of the pedagogy midway through the exam. Even the most pronounced praise I’ve seen heaped upon the film is flavored with relief rather than admiration. It could have been so very, very bad and still made a kajillion dollars, so even being one humble notch above lazy insult would be enough to set discerning audiences weeping with grateful joy.

The Hunger Games is decidedly better than one notch above insult, but it’s also a fair distance from high art. There are gaping plot holes, rushed, spiritless character development and Ross favors a jittery handheld camera that’s probably meant to add the roughness of reality to the film but actually raises suspicions that the projector is trembling like a jalopy because of a couple loose bolts. As with the Harry Potter films, The Hunger Games often plays like a memento for the true fans rather than its own standalone work. That relative passiveness is especially surprising given that the plot revolves around a futuristic televised competition that calls upon randomly drafted teenagers to murder each other in cold blood. By its meticulously spelled out premise–detailed in both an opening crawl and again almost verbatim several minutes later in a propaganda film within the film–this is a movie that will involve someone as young as twelve-years-old getting hacked to death with a blade by another child. That’s remarkably grim material being passed off (successfully!) as blockbuster entertainment. Yet the film carries almost no weight, the bloodsport presented with all the foreboding of a sternly spirited game of paintball.

What does work marvelously in the film is its enraged consideration of a class structure in which monied overlords use the considerable power that comes with their station to manipulate the impoverished, working citizenry into permanent subjugation. The commentary is so pointed and clear that the dearth (thus far) of rightward commentators apoplectically frothing about the cunning, insidious indoctrination attempts perpetrated by Hollywood liberals suggests that someone at Fox News is asleep at the switch. Or maybe they’re so soothed by the vision of institutionalized exploitation of the lower class that they’ve heretofore missed the point that this is all supposed to be seen as dire. Don’t worry, they’ll eventually figure it out. It may have taken a few weeks, but it did occur to them that message of The Muppets wasn’t “Drill, baby, drill!” (Of course, they may not want to pick this particular fight, because, like the Muppets, I suspect Katniss can and will fight back.) Even if Ross and his collaborators somehow can’t build gravity into kids pitted against each other, they pick restlessly at an itchy social truth, building some stakes to the proceedings.

There’s also untempered praise merited for the performance in the lead role. Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t burrow as deeply into the character here as she did in her justly Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, although some of the earlier scenes that show the meager circumstances in which Katniss lives carry a spooky echo of the earlier film. She is, however, never less than totally convincing as a young woman with flashpoint emotions and an impetuous, instinctive strength. When she hurls her fellow competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) against a wall after he’s embarrassed her on a preview broadcast, the moment is unexpectedly thrilling in its depiction of uncowed feminine strength. She’s fierce and firm, discovering reservoirs of strength that she’s previously only suspected were there. By the end, she even seems like the sort of character and, just as importantly, actress worth building a franchise around. Or even a phenomenon.