The Hunger Games is better the second time around

by Mark Burger

There’s no question that Catching Fire, the second in the bigscreen franchise based on Suzanne Collins’ bestseller The Hunger Games, is superior to the first film — lending it distinction as a sequel that’s better than the original.

Now, it helped to a large extent that the first Hunger Games wasn’t that hard an act to top. It made a fortune but was forgettable, a quintessential example of studio hype manufacturing box-office success. In other words, the marketing worked and the movie didn’t.

One reason for the upgrade in service is the departure of Gary Ross, whose (mis)direction the first film got things off to rather a poor start. His successor Francis Lawrence’s credits include music videos for Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears, Constantine (2005), and I Am Legend (2007). For this material, an expedient and stylish approach is really all that’s required. Catching Fire is as overlong as the first film (two and a half hours), but it’s not quite as ponderous. A backhanded compliment, perhaps, but a compliment nonetheless.

Having won — by surviving — the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdine (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are worldwide celebrities. Too bad society’s crumbling around them. The taciturn Katniss is a particular thorn in the side of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, oozing malice), who perceives her to be the living symbol of a growing rebellion that threatens to topple this totalitarian regime.

For her part, Katniss has other matters of concern, including the safety of her family and her torn romantic loyalties toward both Peeta and hunky childhood chum Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor). There’s such angst, including a public flogging of Gale, that the film is half over before the Games are played.

Not only is it the 75 th annual Hunger Games, but it’s also a “Quarter Quell,” which essentially means that President Snow can change the rules any way he likes … as if he wasn’t going to do that anyway. He decrees that the previous winners will re-play the Hunger Games — including Katniss and Peeta.

The framework of The Hunger Games appears to have been assembled from various pieces of George Orwell’s 1984, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale (Batori rowaiaru) — the latter being perhaps the most blatant inspiration, admitted even by the most die-hard Hunger Games fans.

Some actors drift through the action only briefly, including Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci as the toothy emcee, Toby Jones (utterly wasted in a throwaway bit) and Elizabeth Banks, who at least manages to exude some empathy underneath her ridiculous costumes. In the universe of The Hunger Games, those in power tend to favor the most absurd attire — something akin to a transvestite’s delight crossed with Cirque du Soleil.

The series regulars — Lawrence, Hutcherson, Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, et al — are earnest and stalwart in their roles, and the film also gets a lift from such newcomers as Philip Seymour Hoffman in full, duplicitous, smarmy mode as the new game master, Amanda Plummer and the delightful Jeffrey Wright as veterans of previous Hunger Games, and scene-stealer Jena Malone as the fierce and funky Johanna Mason, who not only gives Katniss a hard time but also a run for her money.

Although The Hunger Games:

Catching Fire is an improvement over the first film, there’s still more room for improvement. A tighter pace and shorter running time wouldn’t hurt. The story is inevitably building toward its inevitable revolution, but it’s taking a long time getting there. Indeed, it’ll be twice as long — since the ostensibly climactic chapter, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — will be divided into two parts. Why finish telling the story when millions are willing to hear more? !

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