Starvation, ridiculous fancy dress, competitive murder, teeny-bopper love triangles, rebellion, despair, archery, and action, yep it's Hunger Games time again folks. Susanne Collins’ successful series of young adults (YA) novels proved to be a massive cinematic hit when the first chapter hit screens a year and a half ago and so it was inevitable that a supped up sequel would arrive lickety split. There was a changing of the guard in the director’s chair as well as an influx of budget, scale, and star supporting actors. Yet, as much as things have changed in Hunger Games: Round 2, the quality has remained more-or-less the same. The sequel is bigger and less meandering than the original, but at the cost of a bit of depth. Thankfully, the story also grew into its own and left the Battle Royale plagiarism claims behind. In the end, it all broke even. This is about as good as the original film. No more, no less. Thankfully, the last flick proved that this series did have a bit more in the brains department than most YA fantasy epics, so it’s at least a satisfying adventure with a little thematic heft. These films ain’t masterpieces, but they are smarter, darker, and spunkier than most examples of the genre. So you take what you can get.
As with any ongoing fantasy franchise, there’s no catch-up offered for newcomers when the movie kicks off. You either know the story or you don’t and it’s always nice when filmmakers give the audience the respect of assuming that they’ve done their homework. It’s a year after the last Hunger Games. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) now has a nice house for winning, but has to tour around the ghetto districts with her co-winner (Josh Hutcherson) to appease the overbearing government that runs the games. Katniss is of course in love with a pretty boy farmer (Liam “don’t call me Chris” Hemsworth) and not Hutcherson, despite their televised love story. So it pains her to have to fake it for the camera and the public. Plus, as they tour around the poor districts, everything seems to have gotten a little darker and a little more destitute. The poor folks of this world are tired of sacrificing their lives for the rich and whispers of rebellion are in the air along with an influx of violence against the lower classes from the government. Katniss has become an unwitting hero for the rebellion as well and so in an attempt to silence her symbol, the evil lord of the land (Donald Sutherland) announces that a special 75th anniversary Hunger Games will be played between past winners. That means that Katniss has to fight for her life again and this year’s games will be filled with superstar killing machines, poison gas, and killer baboons (yep, killer baboons). And with that, let The Hunger Games begin!
The biggest change between this sequel and the original film is the switch from writer/director Gary Ross (Big, Pleasantville) to director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend). Ross was a wonderful choice to adapt the first book since he’s an intelligent fantasist who retained all of the dark n’ thoughtful themes from the novel. Plus he’s a wonderful actor’s director who cast brilliantly and carefully nurtured each character/performance. Those were key decisions to establish The Hunger Games world. The bad news was that Ross wasn’t much of an action director and resorted to tiresome shaky-cam techniques to both cover his ass and conceal the graphic violence from the ratings board. Francis Lawrence on the other hand is a straightforward action director with a hint of darkness. He dives into the entry and paces it like a runaway train. The film flows like a blockbuster in the way the first movie didn’t, carefully raising stakes and delivering on the action with a steady hand (well, apart from the CGI baboons, but at the same time adding evil baboons to a movie is never a bad thing). With a pair of Oscar-winning writers on script duty (Little Miss Sunshine’s Michael Arndt and Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy) all the clever subtexts remain, with Lawrence merely providing the slick visuals and pulsing drive necessary for the movie to feel like a blockbuster. The film is far more exciting than it’s predecessor; however, it’s also less eccentric and intelligent. That’s probably a fault of the source as much as anything else. Rather than repeating the formula from last time, this chapter represents the first step in the series transforming into a have-nots vs. haves rebellion, while also being that dark and evolving second chapter that all good trilogies need. It’s all quite foreboding and harsh and expansive, it just does all that in a manner that feels a bit more like a paint-by-numbers blockbuster than the original. Granted it’s still a clever and effective paint-by-numbers blockbuster, just not quite as striking a film as last time.
One element that has in no way dipped in the transition from part one to part two is the acting. Ross collected a pretty stellar line-up of character actors looking for a big payday (without selling out to Michael Bay) last time and they’ve all returned along with a few nice new additions. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks once again play hysterical satires of upper class excess without sacrificing depth for comedy. Donald Southerland delivers the baritone, bearded, and bureaucratic evil required for his dark leader with ease. Woody Harrelson is a good drunk. Lenny Kravitz is surprisingly non-distracting. Even newcomers like Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and a suspiciously calm Philip Seymour Hoffman fit into the franchises gently comic, yet harsh vibe well. Of course at the center of it all is Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from her Oscar win. Katniss is a wonderful strong n’ stoic female role model/hero that Lawrence was ideally cast into before and expands on strongly now. It’s a more demanding for Lawrence this time, filled with emotional breakdowns and physical anguish. Fortunately, the actress carries it all and the film with ease from start to finish. The franchise simply wouldn’t have worked without her (as the ho-hum work from a few of the other young actors proves) and everyone involved in The Hunger Games flicks are lucky that they nabbed her before she became a star.
So The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a clever, exciting, and well-produced blockbuster with only minor annoyances and blunders. It’s not everyday that a billion dollar kiddie franchise comes along that provides potent commentary on relevant contemporary themes like teen exploitation, media manipulation, and economic disparity. And yet, somehow, the movies don’t feel as vital or exciting as they should. Part of it is because this type of filmmaking is so familiar these days. Plus, in the case of this particular sequel, it’s also brought down by the fact that it’s very much the second act of a larger story lacking a strong starting point or satisfying conclusion (amusingly, the final image even recalls the last frustrating shot of The Matrix Reloaded, though there’s no way it’s anything other than a coincidence). There is certainly much to recommend about the film. It’s far from a failure and quite well done on a variety of levels. Yet, it’s oddly never as rich or satisfying as a whole as it’s impressive parts promise. Maybe that won’t happen until the series is complete (which will take two films despite there only being one novel left, since that’s how the final chapters of these franchises get adapted for some reason). Maybe it will never happen. Still, even if The Hunger Games movies are only very good as opposed to great, at least that means we all get one more very good fantasy blockbuster before the books close on 2013. The Hunger Games flicks are definitely worth seeing, but let’s hope this journey is all building towards a conclusion that makes the whole series worth the hype.