Louisville's favorite actress, Jennifer Lawrence, is an incredibly busy lady, ever since wowing everybody with her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010 in the excellent Winter's Bone. She has appeared in at least three films every year since (for last year, if you haven't seen Silver Lining's Playbook, correct that mistake immediately, but feel free to forget you ever heard of House at the End of the Street). Of course, the big one last year was The Hunger Games , highly anticipated and based off the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins.
The Hunger Games ended up being surprisingly good; expectations were low based on other recent teenage-novels-turned-film, but The Hunger Games seemed to have something to say. Not merely an action movie, it was smart, well-written, well-directed, and seemed to give an intriguing commentary on our culture of media and celebrity fascination. (See my full review here.)
This past weekend, the sequel was released, with a new director (Francis Lawrence, I Am Legend), new writers (Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire; Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine), and a gathering of new cast members to round out the supporting players, including the always-great Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up where the first left off, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing for a tour of the twelve districts of the nation of Panem after their stunning dual-win of the last Hunger Games (a battle royale-type competition in which two individuals from each district are compelled to fight to the death; a means of keeping the nation in line to prevent another rebellion like the one that happened 74 years ago). However, Katniss is a problem to the government: she (along with Peeta) won the previous Games through an act of rebellion, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) feels she is a threat who may inspire yet another uprising. He compels her to cooperate with the government under threat of the destruction of her home, but the ideologies are too great, and it seems rebellion is brewing.
I feel I have a certain advantage in that I haven't read the books upon which these films are based, thus we will be judging the movie based on its own merits rather than its effectiveness as an adaptation, and I am pleased to report that Catching Fire is just as excellent as the first. The film faces a certain challenge – to focus heavily on the next year's Hunger Games would be redundant, but the story of the new film also needs to capture that tension and excitement. This is where the first film triumphed, by spending the first half setting up an intriguing dystopian future, placing the real source of the conflict not in the violent Games but in this wretched society. Thus, when the conflict of the second film is mostly socio-political, we still feel that tension.
Jennifer Lawrence plays her character flawlessly, and what an interesting character Katniss Everdeen is. The bold and willing hero is a cliché, but so is its opposite, the reluctant hero, and while Katniss is certainly the reluctant hero, it feels refreshingly original; in more cliché stories, we see the reluctant hero and just know that eventually he or she will take up the mantle and emerge victorious. We get no such sense from Katniss, who immediately gives in to the pressure exerted upon her by the president, who completely denies herself and her emotions, and is even willing to give up her life, in order to save the people she loves. The rebellion is brewing, but here is a heroine who would honestly rather it not, who does everything she can to not be the face of opposition. The odds are made clear: while in most underdog stories we, again, know that the idealistic underlings will overthrow the Big Bad Guys, the rulers of this world are truly evil, and it is a strong credit to the tone created in this film that even a jaded cinephile like me felt shocked at a very simplistic – but very effective – scene of public execution.
We should talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Plutarch Heavensbee, who takes the role of Gamemaker, the man in charge of designing each year's Hunger Games. This year is special: it is the 75th Hunger Games, the third “Quarter Quell,” and to make it interesting, this year's tributes are drawn from the existing victors of previous Games. Hoffman is always amazing, and this is no exception. As Plutarch schemes and plans with President Snow, it becomes apparent that, as the Gamemaker, he is not just influencing the Hunger Games, but the political Games, molding everything so that it is perfect, so that the “ideal” society can be re-formed and maintained.
This is a rare kind of film, a supremely marketable blockbuster created based on material designed for teenagers while being at the same time a thinking movie. As with the first, it serves at many times as a commentary on our own society, as we allow ourselves to be distracted by so many worthless things and thus keep our mind off all the very real problems in our world. The message is clear: open your eyes and don't let injustice reign.
Image: Internet Movie Database