(by Dustin Putman
With the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" franchises having run their respective courses, Suzanne Collins' dystopian "The Hunger Games" trilogy (planned as four films by distributor Lionsgate solely to double their profits on the final chapter, "Mockingjay," a 'la 2010's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1," 2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2," 2011's "Breaking Dawn Part 1" and 2012's "Breaking Dawn Part 2") has become the latest cinematic sensation within devoted YA circles. The politically charged source material is altogether stronger than Stephenie Meyer's anti-feminist Harlequin vampire tale, but, so far, 2012's "The Hunger Games" and follow-up "Catching Fire" have not quite done full justice to the novels they are based upon. Performances are inspiring and impassioned and the narrative setups are suitably provocative, but the pictures' action-oriented second halves have left more than a little to be desired. Functional but problematically shot, both films have ultimately not been able to live up to the breadth of emotion or vision one expects from them. Article continues below
17-year-olds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have outsmarted the dictatorial President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and become the first dual victors in Hunger Games history. Although they have returned safely to District 12 and found themselves the recipients of more money than they know what to do with, they soon must shove off on a tour of the other districts, leading to a lavish bash in the Capitol. Even as they mug for the cameras and put up a romantic façade that may or may not be false, President Snow is unassuaged. He sees Katniss as a threat, capable of causing an uprising across Panem. As the 75th Annual Hunger Games—called the Quarter Quell—nears, Katniss and Peeta are thrown a devastating curveball when it is announced that the chosen tributes of the next competition will consist entirely of previous victors. Incorrectly believed to be safe, they find themselves once again thrust into a fight-to-the-death struggle. This time, however, Snow and newly appointed head game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have a few additional tricks up their sleeves, and a personal vendetta against Katniss. No matter what happens, they want her dead.
Having grossed $691-million worldwide, the $80-million-budgeted "The Hunger Games" has gotten a hefty raise and extra vote of confidence for its sequel, the $140-million "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." The transition from one film to the next is relatively seamless, but the scope has increased while visual effects have more soundly improved (a baboon attack here is infinitely more convincing than the cheesy mutated dogs in its precursor). As for new director Francis Lawrence (2011's "Water for Elephants"), taking over for Gary Ross, there is less a noticeable shift than, for example, when Alfonso Cuarón replaced Chris Columbus for 2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Lawrence, like Ross, has a keen eye for human interaction and the overall construction of a fictional futuristic world, but falls into a similar trap when it comes to shooting action. The reliance on shaky, frequently too dimly lit camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Jo Willems (2011's "Limitless") puts the viewer at a distance, calling far too much attention to itself. Instead of allowing sequences to play out with airtight choreography, fluid editing and a propensity for awe-inspiring grandeur, the film's last hour set on a booby-trapped tropical island is missing the necessary layer of threatening beauty and suspense found in Suzanne Collins' novel.
Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (2012's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") and Michael DeBruyn (2013's "Oblivion") hit most of the highlights of the book, to be sure, but they seem to be going through the paces. When characters die, there should be an aching sting of loss in the pit of one's stomach. This never occurs, the script pushing forward without taking the time to consider the true cost of life. Set-pieces involving electricity-fueled invisible walls, vicious primates, toxic fog and a manufactured tsunami are underwhelming, never matching their clear potential. The finale, while concluding on a note of simmering, subjectively loaded umbrage, strikes as anticlimactic. As is often the case with middle parts of trilogies (or quadrilogies), there is no proper beginning or ending, stripping the story of a satisfying payoff. That, alas, will have to wait.
If there are plenty of issues to be had with certain directorial choices in the story, the opening eighty or ninety minutes are pretty terrific, propelled by Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence's (2012's "The Silver Linings Playbook") fiercely complex reprisal as Katniss. This would be a dream role for any young actor, requiring a spectrum of emotions intermixed with a crucial physical believability, and Lawrence excels time and again. The anger and feelings of betrayal as she is struck down by a cruel and unfair government regime; the equal parts confusion and loyalty she has over her relationships with Peeta and also Gale (Liam Hemsworth) back home; the fear and dismay that comes with facing the prospect of imminent death while seeing her loved ones in danger; the bravery and resolve she grows in order to fight the system as best as she can—Lawrence gives all of the above and much more wholehearted life. As the devoted, kind-souled Peeta, Josh Hutcherson (2012's "Detention") holds his own as the other half in a love story building in weight and consequence as this series goes on.
The bland third side of the romantic triangle falls to Liam Hemsworth (2012's "The Expendables 2"), whose Gale is an afterthought in the scheme of things. He simply doesn't have much of interest to do. In effective supporting roles, Donald Sutherland (2011's "Horrible Bosses") is exceptionally enraging as the frightened, power-hungry President Snow; a memorable Jena Malone (2011's "Sucker Punch") is energetically defiant as District 7 contestant Johanna Mason, and Elizabeth Banks (2012's "Pitch Perfect") takes advantage of the chance to better explore Effie Trinket, Katniss and Peeta's extravagantly made-up District 12 chaperone. "You both deserved so much better!" Effie tearfully tells her tributes in one poignant scene, genuinely concerned for their well-being and starting to realize just how ethically wrong the Hunger Games are.
As a fantasy-adventure saga, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is merely adequate, a motion picture of uneven sides and watered-down PG-13 violence to appease the MPAA ratings board. Its momentum is lacking and rushed and its expected eye candy in the third act disappoints, Francis Lawrence choosing to portray the nightmare island with commonplace grime and grit over what should have been malevolent lushness. Where the film succeeds is in its blazingly compelling depiction of a country manipulated by its crooked political figures and strangled by the hands of outrageously hypocritical tyranny and fascism. Watching the plot unfold, the viewer gets every bit as riled up and outraged as Katniss does, and it helps that someone of Jennifer Lawrence's exceptional caliber is carrying the torch. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" has far more on its mind than ornate costumes and CGI effects, and this is what finally lifts the movie above its more mundane trappings.