Friday, November 22, 2013

The Capitol Strikes Back: HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE


It’s always a pleasant surprise to see a sequel not only learn from the mistakes of its predecessor, but to move forward exploring the aftermath of its initial narrative. In the case of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire it is a modest improvement, but improvement nonetheless. I suppose when you make nearly $700 million dollars worldwide, you can afford an upgrade in the scale and believability of your special effects. But more than that, director Francis Lawrence, taking over for Gary Ross, brings a clarity of vision and the script – adapted this time by Simon Beaufoy and Michael DeBruyn – finds a leaner and tougher approach to plunging us into the tangle of potent sociopolitical allegory. The filmmakers have, of course, the novel by Suzanne Collins to work from, but the film’s sequel represents a step up in quality, something not represented in the books. I get the feeling that the ideal director for this material would be the violent satiric Paul Verhoeven of Robocop or Starship Troopers, but Lawrence, having directed Constantine and I am Legend, is no stranger to character based spectacle. He gets the details and surface excitement right and the adaptation keeps character and politics balanced.

When we last saw The Hunger Games, an annual children’s fight-to-the-death put on by the Capitol to keep the 12 Districts of dystopian future nation Panem in line, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) became unprecedented double-victors. They managed to finagle a fake love story for the Capitol’s cameras that caused a rule change when the gamemaster balked at televising the Games’ first double suicide conclusion. Catching Fire picks up as Katniss and Peeta are sent on a victory tour in advance of the next year’s Games, a tour that ignites tremors of rebellion throughout the country. News of the Capitol’s loosening grasp, as represented by these two kids who beat the system, only brings down the violence of the state all the harder. Because Lawrence (the director, not the star, no relation) holds the camera steady as the screenplay allows the film to let the mournful anguished aftermath of the first to linger, it’s impactful in its stillness.

Transparently evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) feels so threatened by these victors, he commissions a new gamemaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to devise a set of rules for the upcoming Hunger Games that’ll leave the Districts shaking and complacent with fear once again. These two actors spend their screen time chewing over every evil growl as they scheme a way to eliminate Katniss from the situation. So it’s back to the arena again, only this time the tributes competing are not kids, but former champions, some still young, like our heroes, others elderly, unfairly thrust back into the battle. Katniss and Peeta, plagued by guilt and post-traumatic stress dreams, are forced to fight once more. But now the Captiol’s men behind the curtain seem determined to kill them all. The arena – with its man-eating monkeys, poison fog, and other disasters that make for good CGI spectacle – is as deadly as the competitors, who feel betrayed by the society that’s coddled them in the years since their victories. It’s a volatile situation, vibrantly dramatized in a sequel that’s unafraid to complicate its premise and slowly radicalize its characters.

The first film was about a girl learning to game an unfair system to survive. The sequel is a film about how she responds to finding herself an accidental symbol of burgeoning revolt. She agrees with the ideas she has come to represent, but can’t figure out how to best position herself (if at all) as the savior the people crave. Lawrence (the star, not the director, no relation) lets us see her fear and resolve as she feels her way towards becoming the rebellion she represents. She doesn’t want to hurt those she loves, like her sister (Willow Shields) and best friend (Liam Hemsworth), but as the Capitol conspires to restrict her choices, she’s left with only her own resilience to guide her as she must decide who to trust.

Woody Harrelson, as a drunken mentor, Elizabeth Banks, as a flibbertigibbet slowly growing a conscience, Lenny Kravitz, as a charitable designer, and Stanley Tucci, as a teeth-flashing talk show host, reprise their roles. New to the scene are Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as techie middle-aged tributes, Sam Clafin, as a handsome young tribute who may be an ally, and Jena Malone as an entirely fearless tribute furious about her situation and ready to tear down the Capitol on live broadcast if possible. It’s a whole lot of character and situation storming about the film, but because the world of Panem has ever so slightly grown more complicated it can more than accommodate the additional interest.

It becomes, at times, a fairly moving picture of resistance and defiance in the face of sickly opulent fascism that’s willing to put the underclasses to work and, when they won’t, put them down. The metaphor of sociopolitical traps – have-nots violently encouraged to submit to the haves – is potent, as is its mass mindless entertainment as purposeful distraction of serious injustice. Like its predecessor, Catching Fire largely separates its ideas and its action, forcing the audience to think and feel through an hour of politics and satire sitting tantalizingly on the surface, before plunging into crisp, relentless action and danger in the back half. The bifurcation works, loading up the back half with busy thrills after slowly pulling tension out of scenes in which some of our finest character actors in sometimes silly costumes say serious and goofy things surrounded by spare sci-fi future chic.

It’s all anchored so strongly in Katniss, her journey, and her determination that it doesn’t get lost in the precision campiness of the Capitol, the constant – and coherently photographed – action of the Games or the sometimes misshapen narrative. For in true middle-chapter franchise fashion, Catching Fire, for all its melodrama and movement, doesn’t begin or conclude. It starts in the aftermath of the first and ends by excitingly trumpeting into a cliffhanger teasing more story to come. But it has enough surprises along the way that it doesn’t feel like a cheat so much as the exciting promise of escalation to come. 

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