The sequel is a dubious beast. Almost always inferior to whatever greatness preceded it and viewed as little more than a desperate cash grab, it’s largely an artistically hollow affair.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one of the incredibly rare exceptions to this.
Like a phoenix from the ashes, this stunning anomaly is a complete and utter improvement on the original in every way. The emotions are more tangible, the design is more intricate and — most importantly — it finally does not shy away from depicting the vicious action that beats through its dark heart.
Ever since Harry Potter lumbered into holiday cinemas and became the all-conquering annual box-office cudgel that couldn’t be stopped, prospective young adult fiction authors (and studio executives) have frantically churned out franchise after franchise in the hopes of landing the next great white billion-dollar-deal.
But for every Twilight, there have been 10 Percy Jacksons and Golden Compasses. Not that it’s a bad formula, but just because a series contains a teenage protagonist (dealing with everyday emotions that young readers can identify with) set against a alternative backdrop containing magic powers and/or alternate realities, does not guarantee a financial success.
So what’s the allure of The Hunger Games?
The series itself is deeply derivative, but it’s derivative of a lot of great things. From the Orwellian brutality of its post-apocolyptic society to the barbaric nature of the titular games that recall Kinji Fukasaku’s beloved cult favourite Battle Royale (itself a near carbon copy of Lord of the Flies), it’s a very appetizing brew.
But as addictively appealing as these components are, the franchise’s true secret weapon comes down to two words: Jennifer Lawrence.
Is there a more likeable actress in Hollywood today? Earlier this year when she tripped up the stairs and into our hearts while accepting her deserved Academy Award for Best Actress in a leading role, it became evident that this was a person whose comedic candour was both endearing and ferociously refreshing.
However calculated this public persona may be, you only have to compare her to that evening’s other big winner, the frustratingly prominent Anne Hathaway, to see just how smart and welcome her antics are.
Fortunately, Lawrence has the acting prowess to carry a film on her own.
Her breakthrough performance in Debra Granik’s fantastic Winter’s Bone is the role that won her the lead in The Hunger Games, and it’s that burning charisma that remains one of the series’ most versatile assets.
While waiting for the film to start, patrons are treated to a plethora of tie-in commercials featuring a series of Nerf crossbows for girls and an elaborate Cover Girl campaign — inspired by Lawrence’s looks in the films — sandwiching adverts for Coca Cola hawking the sunny side of CCTV. It becomes immediately evident that we are in phenomenon territory.
Set in a classically dystopian future after some unknown disaster has annihilated civilized society as we know it, North America is now regarded as Panem and is divided into 13 impoverished districts.
Ruled over by the cruel and decadent inhabitants of The Capitol, the districts are subjected to the annual “Hunger Games”: a televised bloodbath in which a young male and female “tribute” are selected from each district. There can only be one survivor.
Having defiantly won the previous tournament, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) — now traumatized from the wanton death she was witness to — and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) embark on a victory tour of the districts to pay homage to their fallen sons and daughters.
Katniss’ intransigent attitude in the media toward the fascistic Capitol has made her a symbol of impending rebellion. Nervous of the girl’s potential for insurrection, The President (Donald Sutherland) schemes with Head Gamemaker Heavensbee (Philip Seymour-Hoffman, adding some welcome gravity), to orchestrate an all-star Hunger Games in honour of its impending 75th anniversary.
Devastated that she must once again compete, Katniss quickly creates alliances with a choice few of her fellow experienced combatants.
This clever twist allows for a battle that is considerably more interesting to watch.
No longer relegated to just teenagers, the tributes now consist of a wide age demographic, which lends for some great cameo performances.
The unlikely duo of Geoffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer make for a pleasingly odd team. Arrogant adonis Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) is paired up with the elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen) — one of the original victors.
In addition to each other, the tributes most also contend with an environment that features blood rain, a pack of vicious baboons, and — in probably the most unsettling sequence — poison fog (more than one crying child was escorted from the theatre at this point).
But it’s this reconciliation with these darker elements of the central concept that help make the film so enjoyable. Though the pain and violence never feels gratuitous, it does feel exploitive. One hopes that was author Suzanne Collins’ intent.
The series also possesses surprisingly astute observations on modern media and the morbid desires that feed it.
The tributes are granted instant celebrity — and the grooming and coaching that go with it — even though they are essentially being pushed down a glamorous slide into an abattoir.
The vicious nature of the Hunger Games may seem remote, but current celebrity culture is, and always has been, a remorseless meat grinder that preys upon on the naive and beautiful creatures that become ensnared by it.
As much as we love our Tara Reids and our Lindsay Lohans, we also love to see them fail.
It’s this element of savage schadenfreude that the film captures so well. And that is exactly what great science fiction is about: not the future, but exactly when and where it was written. It may be a little on the nose at times, but Catching Fire is just about as subversive as studio blockbusters get and makes the preceding film look absolutely amateurish in comparison.
Film of the year? Not quite, but it’s effortlessly more powerful and relevant than just about anything else to come out of Hollywood in recent memory.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Final Trailer
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Teaser Trailer
All photos by Murray Close, Lionsgate Studio