THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (directed by Francis Lawrence, 2013)
Early in the surprisingly involving 146 minutes of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" comes a scene that's quite telling. We're gearing up for the next round of Hunger Games, having been dumped back in this world almost immediately after the first movie ends. Our hero, the iron-slinging Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence in full "I know I'm awesome but lets be cool about it" movie star mode) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) emerged as victors from the last games but severely shook the dystopian districts of Panem, almost causing Donald Sutherland to raise his voice. In a blatant ploy to terminate them and squash any rebellion that casts Katniss and Peeta as its idols, President Snow (Sutherland) announces this year's 75th Hunger Games will pit surviving victors against each other.
Naturally this doesn't sit well with that elite, lucky group who thought their televised combat days over. Most remain publicly polite, playing politics as best they can. Then fiery Johanna steps up to be interviewed by Panem's resident slimy talk show host (Stanley Tucci) and when asked how she feels about participating in the games again, replies to the effect of, "Fuck this and fuck you all too!" All done with requisite bleeps, because it's framed as a television show, after all.
And therein lies "Catching Fire" in a nutshell. Even in a time where vicious executions are devoured on live TV...god help you if you utter one of George Carlin's seven naughty words. For all its famed depictions of kids killing kids, for all its harsh visions of the future where architects and fashion designers appear to have collectively decided, "You know what, gray doesn't get its due," this is an oddly tame movie, all things considered - teetering right to the edge, but then leaping back to hug the wall.
But here's the thing: That's not a problem. "Catching Fire" represents the rare case of a beast wanting to swing both ways and actually succeeding. Sure, its parable of a totalitarian future that really represents our society has been done in other, better movies. Sure, its main attraction of hot people fighting in the woods plays like some ham-handed parody of "Survivor: All Stars," satire with training wheels on. Key to enjoying "Catching Fire" is to embrace the counterintuitive notion that a good movie must be original.
"Catching Fire" is not wholly original. The series is not wholly original. What it is is exceedingly well-made, brimming with confidence and pure-pop fun and oddly high emotional involvement. Enjoy it on your own, legitimately, as an adult. You need not find a random preteen girl to accompany you as your ticket in. Actually, Filmvielle officially advises against that.
It's no secret - and a bizarre bit of irony - that the actual Hunger Games tend to be the least interesting parts of the "Hunger Games" series. In the last movie they hit with a downright thud, with the drama and moral complexity of the first half stripped away, putting the bow in Katniss' hands among a group of clearly defined villains and reducing the movie to, "Kill or be killed." As a straightforward survivor tale coupled with dystopian satire, it felt oddly clunky, and "Catching Fire" doesn't quite solve that problem.
Instead it basically just asks for a do-over. Artificially returning Katniss and Peeta to the arena is admittedly a bit of a cheat, allowing "Catching Fire" to mimic the structure of the first one as if "Home Alone 2" was a way to apologize for its predecessor. In a plot-driven novel, these similarities might seem more glaring. On screen, however, it rolls off our backs. Director Francis Lawrence (taking over for the previous installment's Gary Ross) shoots with more confidence and with a crisper sense of place, suggesting a world that feels genuinely lived in and not simply created.
Some of this is no doubt just liberation of not being the guy who has to introduce everything. But "Catching Fire" simply feels tauter and more immediate than the last movie, which at times felt frazzled to teach us what we needed to know as fast as possible. "Catching Fire" springs forward with the sureness of a movie that knows where it's going and knows how to get there. As the first half of the movie remains invariably more interesting, writers Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy focus squarely on the relative oddness of reality TV culture and how, as a fake couple trotted around for our amusement, Katniss and Peeta are essentially winners of "The Bachelorette" as much as of a battle royale in the jungle. Through this, "Catching Fire" even lands some sneaky observations about distraction used to pacify the increasingly angry masses.
Then we have our central love triangle. Playing Katniss, Lawrence radiates a fierce vulnerability (if that's even a thing) but the fact that she excels is no surprise. In fact, this is that part of a Jennifer Lawrence review where you're required by law to say she excels. Sadly she is not surrounded by two characters her equal - I needed a full ten minutes to remember that Peeta isn't the little sister. The fault lies not in Hutcherson or Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss' secret lover in her home district. They do fine with what's given. They just aren't given much.
No doubt that shippers of the movies and novels are lumped into the old standbys Team Peeta and Team Gale. Is there such a thing as Team Whatever, Honey?
And yet even this is oddly admirable. Obviously "The Hunger Games" is not the first YA series to spin a central female protagonist into a love triangle with two chiseled suitors. What sets "Catching Fire" apart from the pack, with Lawrence as its lead, is its suggestion that the "Which fella?" game doesn't amount to a hill of dystopian beans. Katniss' worth as a person and as the hero of our story doesn't reside in the man she engages in PG-13 hanky panky with. Hell, she should really pick Woody Harrelson as Haymitch if she cares about quality. Instead she shoves romantic entanglements aside for the greater good, adding shocking dramatic weight to a movie where I didn't expect to find it.
A hero of a tentpole franchise making the dynamic choice that silly flirtations aren't as relevant as the world around her? Sign me up. Even Thor couldn't shut up about Natalie Portman.
Katniss is a heroine navigating a world with no easy choices, where even doing the right thing will inevitably result in sorrow and rejection and suffering, and "Catching Fire" represents a series ready to live up to that complexity.
I was all set to snidely close this review by comparing "Catching Fire" to a gateway drug, one its target audience can experiment with on their way to better fare. But lets not get so condescending. Here is a worthy movie by any stretch of the imagination, effective pop entertainment, and if it has limits to what it can show, at least it doesn't shy away from the reality of what it's showing.