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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

DIRECTOR: Francis Lawrence

CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Amanda Plummer

REVIEW:

Unlike inferior book-t0-screen cousins like the Twilight series, The Hunger Games, adapted from the popular book series by Suzanne Collins, proves that “young adult” does not have to be synonymous with vapid.  Halfway through the planned onscreen four-part saga, Catching Fire deepens and expands on themes in the first installment and takes it in darker directions.  Like The Empire Strikes Back, this is an example of a sequel that surpasses the original.We pick up in the aftermath of the Hunger Games from the first film.  Victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) are on a whirlwind victory tour of the 12 Districts aimed at distracting the starstruck masses from the oppression of the impoverished districts by the wealthy, decadent Capitol.  Under advice from Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta continue to play up their “star-crossed lovers” facade for the cameras and sing the Capitol’s praises to protect their loved ones, but Katniss soon finds that things are only growing more dangerous.  Her act of defiance during the games has made her an unwilling figurehead for revolution.  Katniss’ idolization as a beacon of hope to the increasingly discontent masses alarms President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and under the advisement of the shrewd new game-runner Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he adopts a strategy to promote Katniss as a propaganda darling to turn the people against her and destroy her image before destroying her for real.  Eventually, Snow and Plutarch try to distract the masses with the spectacle of an All Star Hunger Games reuniting returning champions, where Katniss and Peeta are joined by athletic pretty boy Finnick (Sam Claflin), nerdy genius Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), who relies on brains over brawn, and surly loner Johanna (Jena Malone).  But these are not normal Games.  Snow and Plutarch are using these new games as a cover to arrange Katniss’ demise in a way that will invalidate her as a symbol of hope and freedom, and the odds are stacked against her.  Meanwhile, Katniss must contend with the continuing love triangle with Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and whether to embrace a status she never wanted or asked for as a symbol of revolution.

It takes halfway through this two-and-a-half hour movie for the titular games to get started, but that’s not a criticism.  In fact, a case could be made that the political intrigue brewing in the first half is more interesting than the games themselves, which supply more of the same from the first movie, though the threat quotient is bumped up a little with the addition of poison fog and violent baboons.  The team of contestants are better-developed than in the first film, where only Katniss, Peeta, and to an extent Rue mattered.  Here, Finnick, Johanna, and Beetee attain enough character to give us an interest in whether they live or die.  We get more glimpses of the unrest brewing throughout Panem, and whispers of revolution are beginning to take root, leading to the government responding with more extreme actions to maintain its fragile grip on power.  As in the first Hunger Games, the most brutal moments are obscured by quick camera cutaways, but the material is more adult and grown-up than in the vacuous Twilight series, and parents considering taking young children should exercise caution.  The budding Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle gets more attention and is handled more like it’s between young adults than the whiny teen angstfest of Twilight.  These characters are concerned with survival first and foremost, and don’t have time for melodramatic speeches or pissing contests.  The Hunger Games is far more sophisticated and substantial and has serious themes it’s tackling.

Jennifer Lawrence, who provided a solid anchor for the first film, brings more depth here as Katniss suffers from PTSD or something similar from her experiences in the previous Hunger Games.  Her innocence has been stolen, and her future uncertain.  Likewise, Josh Hutcherson’s acting has improved from the first outing, making Peeta a worthier partner to Katniss.  Donald Sutherland brings a chillingly commanding presence to President Snow, Stanley Tucci again steals scenes with panache as the game’s announcer Caesar Flickerman, and Elizabeth Banks again provides some outfits that might make Lady Gaga jealous.  Most of the supporting cast from the first film–Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Toby Jones—are still onhand, with other familiar faces like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright joining the show.  Sam Claflin and Jena Malone make Finnick and Johanna appealing enough for us to root for their survival, even if all of these characters making it out alive might seem a long shot.

Catching Fire runs a bit too long.  A few scattered scenes could have been cut for a more streamlined pace.  This installment ends with a surprise twist about one character’s loyalties and a dark cliffhanger leaving everybody’s fates up in the air that recalls The Empire Strikes Back for its tone of uncertainty.  The open ending is inevitable but a little frustrating; the movie basically stops without a real climax and might as well have “to be continued” subtitled under it, leaving us waiting for more.  Nonetheless, this is grown-up and substantive entertainment that proves “young adult” fiction doesn’t have to play dumb, and leaves the wait for more something to be anticipated rather than dreaded.

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