In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war, to be replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year, two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal intimidation of the subjugated districts, the televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem as the 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors, literally, with all citizens required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss' (Jennifer Lawrence) young sister, Prim (Willow Shields), is selected as the mining district's female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the town baker who seems to have all the fighting skills of a lump of bread dough, will be pitted against bigger, stronger representatives who have trained for this their whole lives.

Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen in smart, thrilling, dystopian sci-fi adventure.

At last, a teenage heroine who’s smart, strong-willed and resourceful and isn’t prone to mope around pining for a pale vampire. Yes, Katniss Everdeen is no Bella Swan. And with due respect to the talented Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence brilliantly brings to life a far more compelling, fully-rounded and all too human character in The Hunger Games.

The first movie adapted from Suzanne Collins' trilogy of humungously popular novels is hugely entertaining, a winning blend of sci-fi, adventure, romance, survival saga, lacerating reality show satire and an allegory about the deep divide between the haves and have-nots.

It’s suspenseful, emotionally involving, violent (although the brutality has been toned down to earn a PG13 rating in the US, M in Australia) and occasionally funny.

Directed by Gary Ross, who co-wrote the screenplay with Collins and Billy Ray, the film does have several flaws. Despite the $80 million budget, some of the CGI work looks fake and cheap. A few of the performances are gross caricatures, albeit with characters that are deliberately outlandish. The pacing lags at times and it’s self-indulgently long at 140 minutes. Yet those are minor blemishes in a film which deserves high marks for its creativity, intelligence and flair.

Aged 21, Lawrence stamps herself as a genuine star, portraying a young woman who is simultaneously tough yet vulnerable, feisty and tender, brave and fearful. Echoing her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s Katniss lives in District 12, a dirt-poor coal mining area of the Appalachians in North Carolina, with her adoring kid sister Primrose (Willow Shields) and strung-out mother (Paula Malcolmson).

The futuristic, post-Apocalyptic America, renamed Panem, is ruled by the silver-maned President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the Capitol, a glittering city full of debauchery, opulence and excess. Snow stages a grotesque annual 'pageant" known as the Hunger Games in which 24 contestants known as Tributes, two from each district picked via a lottery, fight to the death, televised live to the delight of the Capitol’s citizens. Just why there’s such a blood lust and callousness among the rich, privileged folk isn’t explained in the film, but Snow says the event is intended to give the oppressed in the districts a little hope.

After Primrose is selected for the 74th annual edition, Katniss volunteers to take her place along with her friend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who’s long had a secret crush on her. They’re groomed and trained for the ghastly Games by the effete Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the shambolic, jaded Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a past winner, and sympathetic stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).

The preparations aren’t especially interesting but the momentum picks up when the combatants are let loose in a synthetic forest, armed with medieval weapons, as the narrative veers into Lord of the Flies territory.

Hidden cameras capture every move while technicians manipulate the environment, as in The Truman Show, and the televised show is hosted by the flamboyant, smirking Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, decked out in an upswept, cobalt blue wig topped with an outsized bun).

The violent acts are cunningly filmed so that we see the start of each skirmish and the aftermath (each death marked by a cannon fire, with the victim’s identity flashed in a hologram to inform the viewing audience), with minimal blood and gore.

The dynamic between Katniss and Peeta undergoes intriguing twists as the Games progress while she also shows her tender side in her relationship with young fellow contestant Rue (Amandla Stenberg).

The cinematography by Tom Stern, a frequent collaborator with Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar, Gran Torino, Hereafter, Invictus, The Changeling etc), is fluid, mostly using intimate close-ups which capitalise on Lawrence’s full range of emotions and expressions. She doesn’t need much dialogue to convey her inner machinations.

The production values generally are top notch except for CGI-created shots of a speeding train, a spaceship and the exteriors of the Capitol which look phony, which perhaps explains why those scenes are brief.

Hutcherson registers strongly as an initially shy, scared guy who’s nowhere near as tough or resilient as Katniss yet proves his devotion to her.

The usually dependable Tucci is way over the top as the cackling, preening and patently insincere Flickerman, embodying the worst characteristics of the reality show host.

Banks simpers and fusses as Katniss’ chaperone, a poorly-sketched character, while Harrelson injects a welcome degree of levity. Liam Hemsworth makes the most of a small role as Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’ best friend in District 12, who looks like he may later figure in a romantic triangle a la Twilight’s Jacob and Edward.

As the weirdly bearded, coldly efficient head game-maker Seneca, Wes Bentley has a couple of impressive scenes with Sutherland.

Overall, it’s another skilful, expertly-crafted effort from Ross, the director of Seabiscuit and Pleasantville.

Roll on chapter two, Catching Fire.