The Hunger Games” is one of the most interesting blockbuster franchises to come along in a while. If you are so inclined, they are easy to critique as films because they aren’t particularly original and the plotting isn’t exactly elegant, but to come at these movies from that angle is missing the point.
What made “The Hunger Games” so great, and what continues in its sequel “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” is these are big-budget, Hollywood movies that deliver thrills and spectacle all while very seriously considering issues like class, violence, and tabloid culture.
It’s like eating a candy bar that is loaded with vitamins.
For those of you in need of a refresher, “The Hunger Games” is set in a dystopian future (why is the future always either dystopian or utopian? Why can’t it just be topian?) where 12 impoverished districts prop up a ruling oligarchy that resides in the garish, callous Capitol.
Part of subjugating the masses involves a wacked-out reality show where young “tributes” from each district fight to the death in an event called The Hunger Games.
All of this was the brainchild of teen-lit author Suzanne Collins, whose “Hunger Games” trilogy became international bestsellers, so she deserves a lot of credit for the subversive subject matter, but impeccable casting didn’t hurt things either.
It all starts with our heroine Katniss Everdeen, played by the amazing Jennifer Lawrence who almost single-handedly brings credibility to this franchise. Blockbuster bona fides coupled with a Best Actress Oscar makes her Hollywood’s reigning princess (she can be queen when she pries the crown out of Meryl Streep’s cold, dead hands) and she wears it well.
In “Catching Fire,” we catch up with Katniss on a Hunger Games victory tour where she is continuing the charade of her showmance with her Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
But all is not well in the Districts as rebellion is brewing and Katniss has become a symbol of defiance. Desperate for a way to put Katniss in her place, President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his sinister best) enlists the help of Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, popping in for a well-deserved payday), a gamemaster who plots to put Katniss back in the arena by putting on an All-Star Hunger Games where past winners must compete against each other.
Even though “Catching Fire” is a bit of a retread, it stands out more for the pitfalls it avoids than the glory it achieves.
The movie smartly soft-pedals the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and hometown hunk Gale (Liam Hemsworth) as opposed to breathlessly obsessing about it for five movies (yeah, I’m still a little bitter about “Twilight”).
It also packs the supporting roles with experience and skill. Any time you’ve got the likes of Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer rounding out your cast, you aren’t going to have very many wasted scenes.
At a time when cinematic-action-extravaganzas feature the wanton destruction of cities and digital body counts that are impossible to calculate, “Catching Fire” inhabits a world where death and violence have consequences. A movie of this kind that simply pauses to acknowledge the loss of life is oddly refreshing.
My only real beef with “Catching Fire” is that it dumps a ton of plot points and potentially vital information into the last 10 minutes (most likely to service the following sequels) and has those of us who have not read the books leaving the theater feeling a little confused and overwhelmed.
The screening I attended was simulcast with the premier in Los Angeles and featured a live red-carpet event before the movie. I’m sure it was unintended, but Jennifer Lawrence being led through crowds of sycophants and paparazzi while talking heads fawned over her haircut and dress choice bore an eerie resemblance to the scenes of Katniss being paraded around the Capitol with the goal of delighting and distracting the populace. I’m not exactly sure what that signifies, but it probably isn’t good.
At any rate, it proves that “The Huger Games” is a lot more relevant than any of us would like it to be, which means it might not be the action-movie franchise we want, but it is probably the one we need.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation, and language.