Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Oh, hello there. Don’t mind all the rabbits. I’m just down here in their hole, once again reviewing an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games novels without having ever read them, and ready to endure the slanders and defenses of everyone who loves these books more than their own parents. I fell down the bunny basin as a sort of preemptive measure this year. It’s an attempt to avoid the usual critical analysis quagmire over whether or not I have any right to evaluate these motion pictures if I’m not familiar with their source material. Since I can’t possibly avoid it this time around, I’ll just settle in now. Do your worst, Hunger Games fans. Would somebody please pass the carrots?

It sure is warm and fuzzy in here… but that would be because of the rabbits, because The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is actually a pretty cynical movie. That’s good! It’s a cynical universe, particularly in The Hunger Games. Gary Ross’s original movie failed to capture the true ugliness of the future society of Panem. He seemed more interested in his protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and her bewildered journey into a government sanctioned Most Dangerous Game homage that pits children from every district in the land – numbered from 1 to 12, with 1 being the most comically affluent and 12 being the most evocative of a Depression Era Catskill Mountain – against each other in a fight to the death for the nation’s amusement.

Katniss and her District 12 partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) won the games last year. They were the first joint winners in the history of The Hunger Games, thanks to a last ditch suicide pact that threatened to deprive Panem of any victor at all, which would have ruined President Snow’s annual propaganda machine. Boy, did that backfire.

President Snow (Donald Sutherland) now has two beloved celebrities on his hands who can’t help but make the impoverished people of Panem question their government every time they show up in public. The condescending prize of being turned into an opiate for the masses ironically also gave these two winning tributes a powerful voice, and since they’re actually using it, Snow is on a mission to shut them up right quick.

And so, again without having read the novels, I think I’ve finally picked up on the real point of The Hunger Games. Hold onto your bunnies, because if Catching Fire is any indication, this series is actually about being a superstar. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson survived the cutthroat audition process (puns!) so now they’re household names. But rather than do what celebutantes are supposed to do – distract the masses from all the real issues with gossip, dumb outfits and presumably twerking – they’re taking advantage of this opportunity to force people to actually acknowledge and do something about the evils of the world. And since this is science fiction, what teen celebrities have to say actually matters to everyone.

So along with the new Head Gamemaker and winner of the “I’m Not Sure If His Name is Awesome or Stupid Award” Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), President Snow declares that the 75th Annual Hunger Games will be an all-star rally, with the contestants chosen entirely from the existing pool of winning tributes in order to thin out their potentially subversive ranks.

Current child stars and former child stars alike are now forced to compete against each other in a no holds barred death match, with beloved octogenarians (Lynn Cohen, although I like to pretend that she’s really Margaret O’Brien) fighting now-respected character actors (Geoffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) as well as mid-20’s devil may care heartthrobs (Sam Claflin and Jena Malone), with the newly famous Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson caught in the middle, struggling to stay alive and cling to their ideals and figure out just what the hell is happening to them.

The script, now adapted by Oscar-winning writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (the latter under the pseudonym “Michael deBruyn” for some reason) is more efficient this time around, perhaps because the goofier concepts no longer have to be explained and can now be merely accepted as how the Hunger Games franchise works. The first half of Catching Fire tidily acclimates us to a dystopian wonderland of abusive military leaders in “ironically” white uniforms, pervasive antiestablishment graffiti and a ruling class terrified of losing their children to all the fads spinning out of Katniss Everdeen’s popularity. Watching Donald Sutherland leer uneasily at his daughter’s trendy hair braid like it was a harbinger of the apocalypse is one of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s sillier pleasures.

The second half of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a tightly wound, smartly filmed, character-driven action blowout. New director Francis Lawrence has stranger conceits to visualize than Gary Ross ever did, including a persnickety cloud of ugly but easily curable boils and a gang pissed-off CGI monkeys that probably worked better on paper. Fortunately, he never lingers on the wackier set-ups long enough to derail the movie, and he’s patient enough to let his superior ensemble cast play out the slower scenes naturally and charismatically. There’s a lot of talent on display here, and the plot of Catching Fire gives the actors ample opportunity to preen, balk, switch allegiances and make the most of their outsized character traits.

As an action movie, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an improvement on the original. But as a social, political and pop culture satire, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is by definition a mixed bag. At least it has something to say, right? At least it’s encouraging young people to actually make a difference in a world that’s custom-made to pit them against each other so they won’t get organized and gang up on all the callous assholes who stand to profit from their preoccupation with the mass media.

Tickets for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are on sale right now, by the way, and merchandise is available in the lobby. Have you seen Jennifer Lawrence’s cute new haircut? I’ll bet she’s dating Josh Hutcherson. They have so much chemistry! What’s Miley Cyrus up to? Justin Bieber seems to be on a downward spiral. Have you seen the new hashtags on Twitter? #HungerGames #Hypocrisy #Bunnies

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.