Blockbuster franchises by their nature always seem to be perfect for teenage viewers, more than ever in recent years. I suppose that Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations skew a little older, just as that seemingly unending Harry Potter series went for the younger ones. But even amongst the crowded marketplace, The Hunger Games has set itself rather above the competition to my mind. That said, I haven’t read the books, and I don’t think the films are perfect by any means, but they flesh out a credibly multilayered world with a more dystopian bent than you might expect given the target audience, and occasional flashes of cutting satire. Most of all, the series has for its lead actor Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been carving out quite a niche in playing resourceful young women since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (2010). This second film in what’s shaping up to be a tetralogy is another notch in her acting belt and a proficient change of pace for the franchise.
Last year’s first film in the series was certainly enjoyable, but it was primarily pursuing a sort of The Running Man-crossed-with-Battle Royale pastiche featuring teenagers let loose in an inhospitable environment tasked with killing each other off to survive and claim the victor’s prize in this deadly game: a life of ease — though the extent to which this is true seems to depend on the relative comfort the contestants grew up in. For in this world of Panem, created by novelist Suzanne Collins, the population is divided into districts according to what resource that area can contribute towards the wealth of the Capitol. Two from each district fight in the eponymous games, and our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), like her Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has grown up in District 12, a dirt poor world of coal miners. Thus, following the duo’s success in the first film (depicting the 74th iteration of these Games), their victor’s life seems just as monochrome and depressing if somewhat less impoverished as the lives they left behind, and the District’s only other Games victor — Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch — just spends his time drinking himself into a stupor in the gloomy shadows of his own mansion.
In starting out the sequel depicting Katniss and Peeta’s fairly underwhelming lives on this forlorn gated victors’ estate in District 12, the series determinedly sets out to move towards a critique of Panem society (a world of panem et circenses, clearly). And while there is a move towards restaging the first film’s Hunger Games — this 75th edition is cunningly engineered to kill off the surviving victors from all the districts — the film, over its somewhat overextended running time, is far more interested in the political dimensions of their fight. A new gamesmaker has been brought in (Plutarch, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), though Stanley Tucci’s brightly coloured and superficial gameshow host is still front and centre in the media of this skewed society. There are some undisguised barbs at media manipulation before things settle down to the apparently familiar conflict.
I won’t say the film is perfect at filling out the world’s politics, and I was personally left desiring more details. All we see of the other Districts is conveyed through the gatherings on Peeta and Katniss’s victory tour. So we get hints at militarisation and oppression but little more than that. Then again, this is a world whose media is so tightly controlled that each District apparently knows very little about the others, so it makes some sense that we as viewers don’t learn very much, but it does make it difficult to know what the stakes are in the rebellion to which Katniss has apparently been co-opted as the figurehead.
No doubt more will become evident in the final (two) films, but for now Catching Fire feels like a mere way station (if a fairly entertaining one) on this ongoing journey. Even given the restaging of the title’s Games, it largely seems to avoid rehashing too much from the first chapter. The film’s palette is more dour and shadowy — a lot of the action seems to take place at night or under lowering skies — and admits of far more shadings of emotional resonance, but it remains a clear-cut fight between the forces of rebellion and repression, and makes me greatly look forward to the inevitably drawn-out conclusion.
Director Francis Lawrence; Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (based on the novel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins); Cinematographer Jo Willems; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 24 November 2013.