I have been hosting a Hunger Games podcast for the past year with fellow Picktainment writer Savanna New, ravenously anticipating the release of what I hoped to be a juggernaut film. At times, it felt like we had as much on the line as Lionsgate, and the success – or failure – of this Suzanne Collins adaptation would determine whether we flushed months of our lives away or trumpeted the right horse. Let me shout this from the rooftops and spires, balconies and hovercrafts, in boisterous tones melted together with excitement and relief: The Hunger Games is everything I ever hoped, imagined, and dreamed, and as it scorches through the world, wreaking box-office mayhem and absorbing unprecedented critical adulation, let it delight and transform you the way it has me.

And let me be clear about one thing, which cannot be overstated enough: The Hunger Games is NOT Twilight. It is far, far better in pretty much every category, which is a testament to the extraordinary vision of Collins and Gary Ross. Rather than tickle the viewers with teeny-bopper romance and a cotton candy script, the creative geniuses at Lionsgate have produced an emotionally exhausting, profoundly disturbing, heart-in-your-throat saga of exceptional depth and inspiration. You will be without breath. You will feel mentally electrocuted. You will rush to the theater to see it all over again, wishing the next installment could somehow be expedited by 20 months.

The movie does right in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to start praising its magnificence. If you don’t know the story, Katniss Everdeen is born into a dystopian North America, where a totalitarian Capitol forces twelve girls and twelve boys to compete in an annual event called The Hunger Games. Twenty-four tributes go in – one comes out. Sounds like a grisly version of Highlander or Karate Kid, right? Should be lots of crazy fight sequences, leading to an ultimate showdown of good vs. evil, right? And Katniss, the underdog, will find some way to win with sappy music in the background and everyone leaving the theater feeling like they just watched the Mighty Ducks take down some bigger, more touted team, right?

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! That’s why this film is so exceptional. It does NOT take you for a formulaic ride, relying on manipulative plotting and cheap thrills. There is something much grander and significant beneath the surface – an enduring question of “Why?” The violence is never celebrated or even showcased. Ross uses it as a backdrop to blast viewers with a gripping message about the frightening state of human nature and the enduring spirit that bleeds, coughs, vomits “SURVIVE!” Katniss is as inspiring a fictional heroine as there ever has been, and what makes her so remarkable is how strangely she fits the prototype. Like Frodo, sometimes it’s the people who go about their business with understated resolve who galvanize the world.

The acting, from top to bottom, is simply sensational. Jennifer Lawrence is the greatest thing to ever happen to this movie, and it’s a wonder to watch this blossoming star springboard what will become a legendary career. Known mostly for her Oscar-nominated portrayal in Winter’s Bone (which – let’s face it — few people have seen), Lawrence will now become one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. She’s been as virtuous off the set as she has been on screen, but this tour-de-force performance is one that will shake you up and leave you gasping for air. She IS Katniss, the two entities now inseparable from each other, just like you will be from your tissues when she’s done strumming your nervous system.

Josh Hutcherson? Fantastic! Everyone who attended the early screenings could not stop raving about his Peeta rendition, which – like Lawrence’s – is also appropriately understated. The children are pitch perfect, especially Amandla Stenberg as the adorable Rue, who steals the screen every time she appears. The other tributes, spearheaded by Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Jackie Emerson (Foxface), Isabelle Furhman (Clove), Dayo Okeniyi (Thresh), Jack Quaid (Marvel), and Leven Ramblin (Glimmer), all deliver tantalizing performances, further preserving the flawlessness of the experience. I’ve gotten to know some of them over the past few months, so it was particularly rewarding for me to watch them prosper. Among them, Ludwig really dazzles with his unexpected complexity, especially since many expected the frat-boyish Abercrombie model to serve his role by looking good and simply acting like a brute. He brings so much more. Let’s also not forget about Liam Hemsworth, who makes the most of his Gale appearances, including some heartwarming exchanges with Katniss at the beginning.

Perhaps Ross’s biggest contribution comes with the increased visualization of the Capitol. In the books, everything is told from Katniss’ perspective, with the behind-the-scenes stuff left to the reader’s imagination. Ross makes that a huge focal point, scraping his fingerprints all over the control room, the metropolis, and President Snow’s orchards. Wes Bentley, who plays gamemaker Seneca Crane, probably has the third-most screen time in the film, and as you’ll quickly discover, he is light-years more than a showman with a funny beard. All of his scenes are spectacular, especially when he gets to interact with Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith) and – in yet another splendid performance – Donald Sutherland as President Snow. Along the way, Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), and Lenny Kravitz (Cinna) all stimulate the film with vibrant colors and heart-wrenching nuance. It would take far too long to extol all their virtues, so I’ll simply say they are phenomenal.

On our last podcast, listener Derek Jackson asked which movie most parallels The Hunger Games. We went from panelist to panelist, and we were dumbfounded when nobody could even suggest an answer. Suzanne Collins’ superlative work, channeled through the artisan hands of Gary Ross, is a one-of-a-kind cinematic gem that will be long remembered not only for its greatness, but also for the way its inspirational message made the world a better place.