|All hail the rule of the ninnies in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.|
««½ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Written by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. At area theaters.
Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series is a lot like Mount Rushmore. For its prominence on the planetary cultural scene, its triumph of impact over art, it's something one remotely admires instead of loves. Missing the movie based on the sequel, Catching Fire, just wasn't an option for a father of an eleven year-old daughter. Having liked the first movie—more or less—this critic resigned himself to the sequel with a prayer: Dear Lord, how bad could it be?
Fortunately, prayers were unnecessary. Catching Fire has many of the same flaws as the first movie, but also a minor surprise: a faint hint of world-weariness, of consciousness that winning, at games or otherwise, can have costs almost as great as losing. The villains in Collins' book have truly awful classical-inspired names like "Claudius Templesmith" and "Plutarch Heavensbee", but she missed an obvious Romanism for her title: Hunger Games: Pyrrhic Victory.
The sequel finds Collins' heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a big, state-provided mansion after her survival in the 74th Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest between the subjects of the tyrannical rule of the Capital. Katniss, though embarrassed by her special treatment, has become a folk hero to the proles. With an aversion to sharing the stage verging on the Putinesque, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants her dead. To that end, he enlists Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to engineer her on-camera demise in the 75th anniversary Games—a special "all-star" edition pitting previous winners against each other.
Once again, Jennifer Lawrence brings more authenticity to the character of Katniss than any big-budget, tent-pole movie like this really deserves. Whether going it alone, as she did in the first movie, or juggling allies Survivor-style here, she's rarely not compelling, rarely standing safely outside the somewhat contrived, half-baked dystopia Collins has conjured.
Trouble is, that contrivance is still there, and doesn't improve with familiarity. Somehow, we're supposed to be afraid of a regime populated by pouffed ninnies like Elfie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks in pancake make-up) and "Caesar Flickermann" (Stanley Tucci with radioactively brilliant teeth). Somehow, everybody is supposed to travel around the Capital's continent-sized domain in Obama's high-speed trains, with aircraft kept oddly beyond consideration. Collins can't decide if her dystopia is ancient Rome without the glory, or pre-Revolutionary France without the culottes.
Like The Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire doesn't end as much as set up the first scene in the next movie. Judging from the audience's reaction, they seem more than willing to follow Katniss anywhere. How bad it could it be?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro