With The Hunger Games franchise, Hollywood has finally found a good reason for smoking up the screen with teen angst. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) doesn’t sulk her way through this sequel because she’s worried about college prospects, or struggling to choose between one hot guy and another. No, her life really does suck.
In last year’s blockbuster based on the first book in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young-adult series, Katniss won a literally cutthroat televised competition. Victory was supposed to set her and her just-for-the-cameras boyfriend, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), up for life. Instead, Catching Fire finds Katniss torn between serving as the decorative pawn of an oppressive regime (represented by Donald Sutherland’s icy President Snow) and the symbol of a struggling underclass rebellion. The latter option is obviously way cooler, but fomenting dissent could get all her loved ones tortured or killed. Including the hot guys.
Collins’ books are a mixed bag. Her action scenes are weightless, gimmicky and reminiscent of video gameplay — in other words, tailor-made for a Hollywood blockbuster. More absorbing (for an adult reader, anyway) is her satirical depiction of a futuristic successor to the Roman Empire, with reality TV as its coliseum and unlucky peasants from the outlying districts as its gladiators. Her world is called Panem — from the Latin phrase for “bread and circuses.”
Catching Fire focuses on the unfair dispensation of bread for the greater chunk of its hefty 146-minute running time, saving the circuses for dessert. It’s inevitable that Katniss will return to the Capitol’s sadistic arena, but the how and why take much setting up. Meanwhile director Francis Lawrence shows the visual acumen he did in I Am Legend, and the sequel’s bigger budget allows us to marvel at the decadent pageantry of the Capitol.
One drawback of Catching Fire (both book and film) is that it introduces a slew of supporting characters who are more interesting than our heroine, only to dispose of most of them in short order. I found myself wishing that the whole saga pivoted around the nerds who won past Hunger Games with their mad tech skillz (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer); or the angry, foul-mouthed, generally unhinged Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).
That’s not to imply that Lawrence sleepwalks through her role — she brings all the grief, dread and determination required, and then some. It’s the role itself that lacks shadings.
Part of the problem is Katniss’ central relationship with Peeta, a skillfully developed aspect of the books that feels increasingly inert on screen. The Hunger Games reverses the genders of a standard heroic trope. Katniss keeps offering to sacrifice herself for Peeta because she’s convinced he’s the better person — a bread baker, a joker and an artist, while she’s mainly good at killing things. In the movie, however, Hutcherson acts like Lawrence’s sullen twin, so we don’t see the playful or nurturing qualities that would justify Katniss’ view of Peeta or her increasing affection for him.
Angst, in short, is best with a counterpoint. Such concerns evaporate in the film’s last quarter, of course, when action junkies finally get their due with nonstop, CGI-enhanced slaughter. (Note to shaky-cam haters: That aspect of the first film is gone.) And sly performances from Elizabeth Banks and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Capitol flunkies, keep the lead-up fun.
The Hunger Games has the edge over the average action franchise in that its plot is clear and compelling enough to reward a viewer’s investment. Now its world has become glossy and stunning, too. Our own culture’s appetite for spectacles should suffice to keep the workforce that toils at desks moving pixels from going hungry for a while.
* Running time: 146 min.
* Rated: PG-13