Wednesday, November 27, 2013

BREAKING THE AVERAGES: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is What a Sequel Should Be

To say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be a box office hit is a no-brainer. After all, the Suzanne Collins penned books are national best sellers and the 2012 film grossed over $400 million domestic alone. However, there remains the question as to whether its sequel is deserving of the same success.

Suffice it to say, it is. 

As the film opens, we find Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, bearing a marked resemblance to Lynda Carter with her raven locks) returned to District 12, unaware that her success in the 74th Hunger Games has planted the seeds of civil unrest and burgeoning revolution. This fact has not escaped President Snow (a sublimely oily Donald Sutherland) who realizes that Katniss, and by extension all the other surviving game contestants, are a danger to the current regime. Therefore, he invokes a "little known reserve activation clause" that forces all winners to compete against each other in the 75th Hunger Games to the death.

In many ways, this film is superior to its predecessor. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation) imbues the film with an overwhelming, oppressively fascist tone. The Capitol's futuristic, opulent USSR/Nazi architecture is evocative of those historical periods while at the same time serves as counterpoint to the impoverished squalor that pervades the thirteen districts. Technology is ever present, used in tracking the movements of all citizenry. It is a world that satirizes our own in terms of where our society is headed. Its power and horror comes from how it reflectively resonates in our own everyday lives. However, in this world, that regime is completely personified in President Snow, and thus gives our archer protagonist a suitable target to focus upon.

It is not an easy job for any actor, male or female, to shoulder an entire franchise. Yet Jennifer Lawrence seems to be able to do so effortlessly. Her performance is as fresh and vital as in the first film, and not one scene rings false. She carries you along and makes you care for not just her, but what concerns her; primarily, the safety of her mother (Paula Malcomson, whose character still has no name), her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields in a surprisingly mature performance), and boyfriend No. 1, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). However, Lawrence’s performance is supported by a fine cast of returning regulars. As annoying as he was in the first film, Peeta is given surprising depth by Josh Hutcherson. For a character that straddles the line between fully realized persona and ersatz Christ figure, Hutcherson does a very good balancing act. He makes the character humanly relatable, thus given an added spice to the story's love triangle. Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket also undergoes a surprising character shift, going from superficial to poignant; one that is perhaps emblematic of the revolutionary changes within society itself. In terms of acting, Woody Harrelson usually does no wrong, and he continues that streak here. His role as drunk mentor Haymitch is somewhat diminished compared to the first film but he makes his mark. As new Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the film's Lando Calrissianesque-cypher who leaves the audience guessing as to whether he is friend or foe (if one hasn't read the book, that is). I would be remiss if I did not mention Donald Sutherland, who actually manages to present a character who is both disarmingly charming yet coldly malevolent; providing the perfect foil for our heroine. Other notable additions to the class include Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Lynn Cohen; all of whom elevate their "second banana" characters into individuals who, despite minimal screen time, the audience comes to care for.

Jo Willems' cinematography and Phillip Messina's production design makes for a fully realized world. If there is a sour note in the production, and granted it is not much of one, it is in John Newton Howard's score. It is essentially a rehash of the first film's score with barely any new themes or motifs of note. However, it does work within the context of the film, underscoring each scene’s import and meaning without overpowering it.

The film skillfully follows the second rule of trilogies in that it is more of the same, only heightened. Unlike other trilogies (I'm looking at you Matrix, of which this film's end is remarkably similar), Catching Fire whets one's appetite for this trilogy's conclusion. This film is intelligently, soulfully well-crafted. It tells the story of one girl's reluctant and seemingly hopeless battle against a tyrannical system. It packs an emotional punch that leaves the audience clamoring for the conclusion. Let's just hope that the forthcoming Mockingjay (Parts 1 and 2 - don't get me started on that one), is more The Lord of The Rings - The Return of the King and less Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in terms of conclusory satisfaction.

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