It's odd when the least interesting thing about a movie called "The Hunger Games" turns out to be the games.
The event is an annual most-dangerous tournament for teenagers set up by a malevolent government that rules a future dystopia by a combination of fear and hope: the fear you'll get picked for the games, and the hope (or at least distraction) created for everyone else by its televised presentation, a la CBS's "Survivor."
Let's hope for the poor wretches watching it in the movie that the production values of the future are a little better than they are in this film. Though the movie is by no means uninteresting, when the tournament begins you feel like you're watching something produced for broadcast television in the present.
The protagonist and the star of the television show within the movie is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone"), a self-reliant teen from Section 12, the outermost, poorest and least likely region, we're told, to produce a winner. When Katniss' young sister is picked, she volunteers to take her place, and is sent to be readied for the games with a boy from her sector, Josh Hutcherson, who may have some kind of unsportsmanlike feelings for her.
Based on a popular young-adult novel by Suzanne Collins, "The Hunger Games" is almost two and a half hours long, which gives it plenty of time to set up its premise and get to know the principles and their world, a welcome attention to story and character. Wherever and whenever Katniss was born is a little like a North Korea of the future, where the select few in the capital hedonistically live it up while outlying zones subsist. The Orwellian games are a way to keep these teeming masses down, and their unfolding provokes thoughts on power, politics, media culture, celebrity and class warfare, just to name a few.
But director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") doesn't have the same feel for the tension and suspense of outdoor cat-and-mouse scenes that he does for teasing out the material's irony and social commentary. The movie will be catnip to media theorists as much as fans of the novel, but the survival games are dull and slow when they should make the heart pound. Should we want the tournament to be more realistic and unnerving, especially because it involves young children? Regardless, those looking for thrilling action might go home a little hungry. (PG-13) 142 min. S