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Film review: THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, from Built For Speed

With the excellent Harry Potter film adaptations and the not so excellent Twilight films now done and dusted, the quest for the teen movie dollar falls to The Hunger Games series.  The first instalment, simply titled The Hunger Games, was moderately inventive, occasionally exciting and at times attractively shot but was let down by maddening use of wobble cam during the all-important fight scenes.  As that film made a bundle the filmmakers have, disappointingly, been unwilling to mess with the formula so the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is barely distinguishable from the first film. 

Catching Fire plunges us once again into the dystopia of post-apocalyptic America or Panem where society has devolved into a totalitarian regime with 12 working-class districts brutally oppressed by the wealthy denizens and government of Capitol City.  To sublimate the violent impulses that the public might otherwise channel into rebellious uprisings, the government convenes a deadly annual tournament known as the Hunger Games.  Here, participants from the 12 districts battle each other to the death in a vast arena tricked out with holograms to make it look like a hostile jungle. 

Following their success in the previous tournament, champions and supposed lovers, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have become celebrities and national heroes.  Determined to exploit their popularity, the nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) attempts to feed them into Capitol City’s propaganda machine by having them make public appearances and deliver scripted speeches in each district. When Katniss goes off script and begins to foment hope and public resistance, Snow and his sinister adviser Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) conspire to destroy her public image and consign her to a likely death in another Hunger Games competition.

Drawing on dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984, Japanese film Battle Royale and Logan’s Run, Catching Fire, had the potential for an intense mix of dark social satire and futuristic adventure.  Unfortunately, this film, like its predecessor, tends to downplay the more serious and confronting issues of totalitarian oppression in favour of romance and turgid teen empowerment messages.  Added to this, the prosaic direction from Francis Lawrence (who replaces Gary Ross) deprives Catching Fire of the necessary atmosphere and tension at vital junctures, particularly when heroine Katniss is under threat.  To his credit, though, Francis Lawrence has dispensed with the wobble-cam.

As in the first film, the Hunger Games tournament, with its mix of sinister technology and old school survival tactics makes for an exciting centre-piece.  People are attacked by wild baboons, pursued by poisonous gas and constantly threatened by booby traps.  The tournament sequences provide the requisite thrills although they do feature the unedifying spectacle of a young chap kicking a baboon in the nuts.  At 146 minutes, though, Catching Fire is a long haul particularly as the hour and a half preceding the tournament mostly involves banal chat.

The trump card in this franchise, however, is Jennifer Lawrence who again proves why she is the most sought after young female actor in Hollywood.  As in the first film, her nuanced and sympathetic performance elevates mediocre material. Her male partner throughout most of the film, Josh Hutcherson,  though, delivers an extremely bland performance that has all the impact and emotional power of a Home and Away extra. Once again there’s some amusingly over-the-top performances from the veteran supporting cast with Woody Harrelson a riot as Katniss’ sozzled mentor Haymitch and Stanley Tucci hamming it up magnificently as the outrageously camp TV host Caesar Flickerman.  Also, Donald Sutherland, despite being a villain, brings a dignity and gravitas to the role of President Snow while Phillip Seymour Hoffman exudes his typical suave but oily sense of menace as Heavensbee.  Lenny Kravitz and Liam Hemsworth appear once again but their roles are fleeting and they’re yet to fully establish their characters.

The Hunger Games film-makers have a tough task as they need to satisfy a diverse audience clamouring for action, adventure, romance, science fiction, political commentary, elaborate special effects and intimate personal drama.  Somewhere in the midst of all these competing interests, the films have lost their sense of direction and wound up as ornate, expensive looking, competently made, sometimes thrilling but too often uninspiring teen flicks.  The Hunger Games films have so far proven infinitely better than their teen adventure/ romance competition such as the highly disappointing Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson and Beautiful Creatures adaptations but they have not been good enough to captivate and inspire devotion from those not already wedded to the novels.

Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Francis Lawrence.

Release date: 21st Nov 2013.

Running time: 146 mins.

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