The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Nothing was the same

Undoubtedly, one of the most intriguing things about the “Hunger Games” franchise is the rather surprising discrepancy between its blockbuster status and its thematic content. In a genre where vampiric sex symbols and avada kedavras are about as dark as it typically gets, it’s hard to understand how a franchise about adolescent gladiatorism has found the market traction to pull in one and a half billion dollars in the box office, with only two of four films out and the most recent, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” still in theaters. Is this an eerie fulfillment of the film’s own satirical thesis? Perhaps. But, more than this, it is ultimately the franchise’s impressive narrative acrobatics—its ability to dance around its subject matter, while managing to hit all the stock crowd pleasers of the blockbuster genre—which secures its commercial potential, despite the challenging nature of its fundamental premise.

“Catching Fire,” adapted from the second installment of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular trilogy of novels, picks up close to where the first film leaves off. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to their home of District 12, after winning the first film’s titular competition—a televised event that pits 24 young “tributes” from throughout the dystopian nation of Panem against one another in a fight to the death. As resistance to Panem’s totalitarian regime begins to spread throughout the nation, however, the pair is soon whisked away on a government propaganda tour.

Despite Katniss and Peeta’s public appearances, the uprisings continue. At the urging of the new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—a character with ambiguous motivations —Panem President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) unveils a revised structure for the 75th Hunger Games, in which tributes are to be chosen from the past winners of the Games, forcing Katniss and Peeta back into the arena.

Francis Lawrence—the creative force that brought you “I Am Legend”—replaced “Hunger Games” director Gary Ross for the sequel. Lacking his predecessor’s keen eye for aesthetics, more than anything, Mr. Lawrence shows a stubborn, workmanlike dedication to the task of narrative propulsion. While pacing is a challenge in adapting any novel to the screen, “Catching Fire” must have been especially difficult, with numerous important plot points to hit before the Games themselves begin at the two-thirds mark—a task Mr. Lawrence dutifully executes.

While this locomotive approach to cinematic pacing leaves some moments feeling glossed over—as in Katniss’ surprisingly speedy emotional recovery after a District 11 citizen is executed as a nearly direct result of her stubborn, anti-government rhetoric—it is a necessary and generally successful narrative strategy, keeping things moving while relying on the details of Collins’ immensely creative dystopian world to carry the viewers’ interest.

In this approach, Mr. Lawrence follows in Ross’ footsteps. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss’ gradual, traumatic initiation into a surreal and exciting new world of brutality and excess provided the momentum the film needed to both sustain viewers’ interest for 142 minutes and facilitate their acceptance of the film’s horrifying central narrative conceit. Sustained by a slew of great supporting characters (most notably Stanley Tucci’s powerhouse turn as the Hunger Games’ histrionic television host), Ms. Lawrence (a very talented actress in her own right) powerfully evoked Katniss’ struggle to survive and maintain her dignity in the most inhumane of circumstances.

In “Catching Fire,” the Games are back, as is the supporting cast, but something feels lacking. While the first film tracked Katniss’ introduction to the Games, the sequel is met with the challenge of telling her story after the first competition is over. Gestures are certainly made to the two victors’ lingering trauma, in the form of hallucinations, nightmares and plenty of tears, but when it comes time to return to the Games and our heroes are thrown back into battle, the film makes this far too easy. Katniss kicks more ass; Pita says dopey, sincere things; things are set (at least approximately) right in the dramatic climax.

“Catching Fire” is a lot of things. The first third reads as a moody teen romance; the Games themselves walk a line between lighthearted ensemble action and campy horror; sprinkled in is political drama, heist film and, of course, blunt social satire.

In this frenetic performance of genre leapfrog, “Catching Fire” somehow manages to be everything except what it actually is—namely, a movie about a game that sees human beings, children, fighting to the death—and in this it falls pathetically flat.

At times, the film’s intentional ignorance of its own basic premise borders on the comic. “A lot can happen in a few weeks,” Gale sulks in an early scene, referring to Katniss’ feigned romance with Peeta during the previous Games. While obviously less marketable to blockbuster audiences, something along the lines of “Oh my god, I’m so sorry you had to just participate in a horrific gladiatorial slaughter!” would seem a bit more appropriate. Other aspects of the Games themselves—such as the convenient pattern that Katniss seems to only have to kill characters that are clearly portrayed as “bad guys” to the viewers, while all of the sympathetic competitors die by other hands—are similarly ludicrous.

It’s just a movie, sure. And an entertaining and decently crafted one at that. But the premise is one of such weight and such promise, that its ultimately clumsy execution makes this a disappointing sequel.

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