Everyone is so eager to say the second Hunger Games movie (“Cathing Fire “) is even better than the first the first. Why do they say that? Anyway it’s just assumed now viewers know the whole story, or at least saw Part One, so we plunge in this time, with less introduction to this ultra-popular young adults sci-fi tale by Susanne Collins. One may miss Part One’s introductory material, its glimpses of the impoverished District 12, which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the protagonists, come from, and the gloriously absurd foppishness of the Roman Empire-inspired ruling class who prance around when the games, designed apparently both to distract and terrify the oppressed majority, are held.
In Part One, instead of following the Hunger Games rule of saving only one survivor of the dog-eat-dog competition, which is like an out-in-the-electronically-generated-force-field-infested-woods version of to-the-death Roman gladiatorial contests, two Tributes (contestants), Katniss and Peeta, get saved by cleverly posing as a romantic couple. Even maniacal dictators have a heart, or it just seems good public policy to celebrate love among the peons. (This new movie has much more hugging and kissing than killing, though it has a brutal whipping only 12 Years a Slave can outmatch, and of course killing does occur; it just doesn’t seem to hurt quite as much as Part One’s.) The “Victor,” i.e., the Hunger Game annual winner — the lowbrow mindset requires the word be explained — normally gets to live an absolutely protected life from then on, his or her triumph saving him or her from future competitions.
Let’s not fail to note that “him or her” is primarily “her,” because this, like the “Twilight” series, is by and for primarily young adult females, and so the story has a strong girl-empowerment angle, for which everybody agrees the steely, glowing Jennifer Lawrence is the ideal central emblem.
But trouble is afoot. The year’s ongoing public appearances of Katniss and Peeta in various Districts, when they stir things up by jettisoning their prepared spiels, show that a spirit of rebellion is afoot. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who seems to have nothing much to do but drink tea and watch these displays, is very displeased at these hints of trouble afoot among the lower orders. After all he’s basically a fascist dictator — though, by the way, if you just watch the Triumph of the Will you’ll see that real-life Nazis did all this grandiose spectacle stuff way better than the Lionsgate folks.
Snow decides to break the rules and bring back last year’s double Victors to the annual life-and-death competition again. When they’re dead, Snow figures the revolutionary spirit will fade, thought this is a dubious notion, since the people are leading their own revolt, not Katniss and Peeta, however much they may serve as inspiring symbols.
Anyway, off we go: Part Two is Part One with a new urgency, because the whole annual Hunger Games scheme of keeping the masses too terrified to revolt now seems to be failing. We have a new director for the film itself (a method used to freshen up the Twilight series too), Francis Lawrence instead of Gary Ross, not that that’s part of the story line. We’ve got some new name actors. A puffy, uneasy-looking Philip Seymour Hoffman, not by any means at his best, is the master of the games (was there one before?). There’s a new pair of “mature” Tributes (to attract the adult audience? — played by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) supposedly chosen for brain, not brawn. Wright hence wears nerdy glasses and Plummer, who might seem an odd choice, is proclaimed a “genius” for a nutty chant that tips off the others to how the island they’re competing on is set up. There’s also an old lady called Mags, played by an 80-year-old actress (Lynn Cohen), who must be pretty athletic to hold onto Finnick (Sam Claflin) as he races through the woods with her clinging to his back.
Woody Harrelson, who continues to be a welcome note, partly because his character Haymitch’s over-the-top style hardly seems any stretch at all for him, hasn’t done anything interesting in between Parts One and Two — unless you think Seven Psychopaths and Now You See Me are great movies. But Jennifer Lawrence (no relation to the director, I trust) on the other hand returns with greatly increased luster, having become a regular with a David O. Russell at the top of his game, winning the Oscar for her turn in his Silver Linings Playbook and coming up in his promising but as yet unseen American Hustle. Other actors give us more of the same. Stanley Tucci (as the broadly parodic game show master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman) deserves credit for being just as camapily manic and silly this time as last. But despite a lot of focus on Katniss’ dazzling game intro wedding gown outfit — she and Peeta were going to wed — there doesn’t seem to be as much spectacle this time, or as much dwelling on elaborate makeup and gear.
There is also the weakness that this time to make Katniss more admirable she fires only in self defense, and one doesn’t feel the danger or the terrifying sense of attrition as participants are eliminated. Been there, done that. Spectacular effects — lightening, explosions, holograms, shifting earth, falling sky — can’t hide the fact that it’s all familiar this time, and you can make Katniss and Peeta almost die, but we’d have to be pretty dumb to worry. It’s not that “Catching Fire” is better than Part One: it’s just that more reviewers have drunk the Kool-Aid. That didn’t happen to me; quite the reverse. Let’s hope somehow the story will reengage me in the followup.
Walter Chaw, one of my favourite dissident US online critics, thinks that “Catching Fire is bad. It’ll make the money it will make, earn no new converts to the flock, and be the type of movie you hope no one ever brings up in polite company because you don’t want to look like an asshole. As with the Twilight series, when the last one screens for press, I’ll probably be sick that day.” I sympathise completely.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opened in the UK 11th Nov. 2013.
DIRECTOR: FRANCIS LAWRENCE
STARS: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, JOSH HUTCHERSON, LIAM HEMSWORTH, WOODY HARRELSON, STANLEY TUCCI, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, DONALD SUTHERLAND, LENNY KRAVITZ, AMANDA PLUMMER
RUNTIME: 146 MIN