Bread, Circuses, and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

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An increasingly oppressive and dysfunctional government distracts its downtrodden people with violent sports and reality-TV. A decadent upper echelon leeches off the backs of the working class, enjoying needless leisure while the middle class buckles under jobs that pay little and demand everything. People are offered less education and find the national news media giving less information about country and business, and more and more about celebrities, their fashion, and their meaningless exploits. But enough about the real world. Let’s talk about The Hunger Games.

The people of post-apocalyptic Panem are kept in line by a militaristic government that’s separated them into 12 districts. Every year, two children are sent from each district to fight to the death in the Hunger Games, a sort of gladiatorial Olympics. One child will survive the Games, and the district from which they hail is given extra food until the Hunger Games roll around again next year. The Games are most enjoyed by a capital that doesn’t participate in them, but rather basks in celebrity, fashion, high technology, and so much food that the drinks served at parties are specially designed to make you sick so you can eat more.

Last year’s The Hunger Games was a wicked parable that created a gaudy capital at once enviable in its wealth and disgustingly ostentatious in its overindulgence. When her little sister was chosen for the games by lottery, poor District 12 coal miner Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteered to take her place and through skill, determination, and luck managed to survive the Games. Action that dragged and threats that bordered on cheesy very nearly undermined a film that ended up being good, but for a few moments there, seemed like it could have been great.

Exit director Gary Ross, whose unique ability to realize beautiful worlds can also be seen in Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Enter director Francis Lawrence, a better manager of actors and action who previously helmed Constantine and I Am Legend. Boy, does that move work.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the rare sequel that hits harder on every cylinder. It takes the parable further, tightens up the action, and increases the threat and emotional weight its characters must bear. There’s a darkness here that recalls how The Empire Strikes Back turned Star Wars from a single story to a universe teeming with lethal possibility.

On the eve of her victory tour with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss suffers overwhelming PTSD. Her joint victory with Peeta is the first of its kind, and how she outsmarted the Games themselves has made her a symbol of resistance in Panem. She’s drawn to embrace the resistance, but President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has made it clear that the continued existence of Katniss’s family and very district hang in the balance.

If there’s a Han Solo to be had, its Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the alcoholic veteran of the games who guides Katniss and Peeta through a victory tour that quickly spirals out of control. Rebellion is inevitable, and Katniss is its figurehead, willing or not. The political battle fought between Katniss’s camp and Snow’s administration is fascinating. Both are hamstrung by her celebrity. He tightens the screws on all the districts, increasing beatings and executions. She fights back through manipulating her image, by fashion and human interest story. It’s a brilliant back-and-forth, but Snow is more powerful, and that means Katniss is headed right back into the Games.

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There’s a parable within the parable, her alliances within the deadly Games just as tenuous and fluid as those in the political arena, just without the veneer. Catching Fire joins this year’s Ender’s Game, Gravity, and Oblivion in what I hope is a trend in big-budget science-fiction: taking time from the action to delve deep into a character’s psychology. Snow is relentless in breaking Katniss down. His assaults on her mental state continue well into the Games, and the action here is more confidently handled than in last year’s installment.

Catching Fire is a parable for our times, but by putting us so close to Jennifer Lawrence’s stellar performance as Katniss, when what’s at stake isn’t just our daily struggle but her emotional one, Catching Fire claims this franchise’s place in film history. It’s funny how empathy works when we’re being told a story – we may feel an unjustness and anger at the state of Panem’s poor and starving that we often forget to feel for our own in the real world. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 for its violence, some frightening images, and thematic elements.

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A version of this review appears in the 11/28/13 edition of La Vernia News.

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