When The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens, its lethally resourceful teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is crouching in a forest, surveying a terrain as pristine as the one once scouted by American Indians. However pastoral, this isn?t the forest primeval but the very edge of free land outside the impoverished zone in which Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her relatives, friends and the other starved souls labor for Panem, the authoritarian state built on the ruins of North America after a catastrophic war. It?s here that she hunts game to feed her family and where this startlingly new pioneer - with her bow and arrows, leather jacket and boots, primitive individualism and totally awesome strength of character - was forged.
Catching Fire is the follow-up to The Hunger Games and the second in what will be four movie adaptations of Suzanne Collins? fantastically successful book trilogy. (The studio behind the series, Lionsgate, is splitting the final book into two flicks.) It?s largely satisfying as far as screen adventures go, and comes fully loaded with special effects and action scenes, and embellished with the usual brand-name character actors, including the new arrivals Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer. It also has a different director, Francis Lawrence (replacing Gary Ross), who showed he knows his way around the post-apocalypse with the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. (Given Katniss? increasingly valiant trajectory, that title would have been apt for this dystopian romp.)
A thrillingly atypical heroine, Katniss is the heart, soul and bloodied embodiment of the series and the primary reason that both the book and screen versions soar above the usual adventure-fiction slag heap. Like most cultural sensations, which invariably owe part of their success to their recognizability (familiarity breeds revenue), The Hunger Games builds on stories deep in our collective databanks, from the Greek myth of the Minotaur to the fall of Rome, and Survivor, the seemingly indestructible reality TV franchise. Like the 2000 Japanese movie Battle Royale, to which it bears some resemblance, The Hunger Games works because it hits that sweet spot where classical myth meets contemporary anxiety to become a pop mind-blower.
Like a lot of middle sections, Catching Fire at once expands on the first part of the series and functions as a feature-long teaser for what will happen next. Shortly after the movie gets going, after Katniss has stashed away a rabbit from one of her snares and cozied up to Gale (Liam Hemsworth), one of her uneasy love interests (she?s the reluctant party), she is sent on a victory tour with the second one, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). In the first Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta won the annual contest of the title, a match that pits a girl and a boy, 12 to 18, from each of the 12 Panem districts against one another in a battle to the death, a setup that speaks to its young adult fans and takes adolescent bullying to gladiatorial extremes.
Metaphors aside, the games are principally a heavy stick that Panem, led by President Snow (an amused Donald Sutherland), uses to keep the progressively restive populace in check. President Snow is the big bad daddy of the series, the patriarchal heavy whom Katniss - who more or less took her own father?s place, after he died - is destined to overthrow. Something is in the air, she realizes in Catching Fire, when she glimpses seditious graffiti and other signs of dissent.
For now, though, as the story builds and builds and sometimes drags, and the studio squeezes the franchise for all it?s worth, Katniss primarily needs to irritate Snow, which finds Lawrence throwing variations of her scowl in Sutherland?s direction, while his caterpillar eyebrows jitterbug above his trademark silky-sinister smirk.
The script, by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn (a pseudonym for the screenwriter Michael Arndt), effectively distills the novel to the essentials from Katniss and Peeta?s victory lap, which involves a visit to the Capitol and the other districts, includes batted lashes and chaste kisses, and finally leads to the main event: a new round of games that pits past winners against one another in an ultimate death match called the Quarter Quell.
There, on a simulated island created by the new head gamemaster (an uncomfortable-looking Hoffman), Katniss and Peeta make friends as they fight foes and endure buckets of blood, poisonous fog, shrieking monkeys and, in a scarily visceral scene, birds that mimic the voices and screams of the combatants? loved ones, as if they were under torture.
Francis Lawrence gives Catching Fire a tougher, less sentimental feel this time around - there appears to be more kissing but less mooning about - that fits the material and Jennifer Lawrence?s gift for projecting unaffected indomitableness. The actress is more expressive here than she was in the first movie, where her lack of convincing affect, including clenching fear, was at odds with the violent stakes. There?s no indeterminacy here, either in her performance or the direction, which both go a long way to clarifying Katniss and turning a girl with a bow into the charismatic figure she was always meant to be. (It?s nice, too, that the consistently appealing Elizabeth Banks, as the kaleidoscopic kook Effie Trinket, is allowed to deliver an actual performance this time.)
Catching Fire isn?t a great work of art but it?s a competent, at times exciting movie and it does something that better, more artistically notable movies often fail to do: It speaks to its moment in time. The mythic America, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler memorably wrote, ?is boyhood.?
One of the things that The Hunger Games, on the page and on the screen, suggests is that the myth is changing. Boys (and men) are still boys, of course, including in movies, but the very existence of Katniss - who fights her own battles, and kisses and leaves the boys, only sometimes to save them - suggests cultural consumers are ready for change, even if most cultural producers remain foolishly stuck in the past. It?s unlikely Katniss will lead the real revolution the movies need, but a woman can dream.
? 2013 New York Times News Service