In its opening seconds, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" reaches across the screen to swat any audience members who might have been inattentive in the past. "What's the matter with you?" it seems to say, like some fifth-grade teacher. "Haven't you read Suzanne Collins' massively successful Young Adult novels? Don't you remember every single detail of Gary Ross' first 'Hunger Games' movie?"
In my case, the answers were "no" and "no." So the movie swatted me fairly hard, and it took me almost a full half hour to get into it completely. It goes without saying my problems won't be shared by those who are indeed familiar with the books and who care so deeply about the franchise that they remember the first movie vividly.
You could call it "commodity narcissism" I suppose. It's a little new in our world. The cultural commodity itself - in this case the sure thing blockbuster sequel of a hugely successful blockbuster movie based on a blockbuster book series - seems to think so highly of itself that it deplores every audience member who isn't, well, "with it."
No matter. Things get better in a hurry for those of us who aren't among the "cool kids." It's not all that creative, mind you, but when defiant heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is forced back into another Hunger Games contest by the unspeakably corrupt and sadistic fascists running the future (Donald Sutherland and series newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman), you'll understand fully again how much of a triumph the "Hunger Games" franchise is in the blockbuster YA book/movie business.
The instructive - and possibly invidious - comparison continues to be with the "Twilight" franchise which never seems pitched at anything other than young females not all that avid about growing into adulthood. It's happy to have the audience immature and dreaming of beastly boy creatures (vampires, werewolves) and Romeo and Juliet plots set in eternal high school.
"The Hunger Games" is infinitely more ambitious. It wants an audience that thinks about the way societies are run and people are treated. It wants an audience - especially a young one - that cares enough about human decency to contemplate revolution when decency is mocked viciously by everyone in charge. It wants an audience that might even transfer some of its feelings about TV sports and TV reality shows into a smartly fictionalized dystopia where murderous contests are played out on the tube for society's amusement.
The contestants "play" a game of "Survivor" based on actual death and actual survival being the only possible victory.
The winners take all. (Society calls them "the victors.") The losers are all dead. The winners, by and large, have killed them - for society's "entertainment."
"The Hunger Games," too, wants an audience socially acute enough to know what poverty and discrimination look like - an audience angry that people in, say, District 12 (where "victor" Katniss comes from) starve and are mistreated and where corrupt plutocrats in the capital district party all the time.
I like this "Hunger Games" audience. I really like them. They've got a lot on their minds, along with romance.
I don't like this new film directed by Francis Lawrence as much as I liked Gary Ross' first one, but then the first time around I was so pleasantly surprised to find a film of a YA fictional phenomenon to be that engaging and inventive that I was a little bedazzled.
Not this time. That first half hour seems to be immersing you completely in the terrible agonies of celebrities to have to mouth platitudes for fans in a society that has become rotten and cruel to the core. If that seems a little too Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian for you, it just seems that the movie needs to work off your initial disenchantment.
Which it does. In convincing style.
I'm not going to claim that it ever becomes completely coherent or emotionally moving. But it's smart, engaging, entertaining and completely worthwhile.
And a lot of the franchise's key performers are awfully good: Lawrence, of course, as sensitive, troubled, rebellious Katniss who has probably single-handedly reinstated archery as a major sport; Woody Harrelson as her cynical adviser/protector; Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci as "Hunger Games" functionaries allowed to camp it up in the movie shamelessly (and amusingly).
Sutherland as Fascist President Snow is enough to scare anyone. With Hoffman as his new, smirkily sinister No. 2, this is one dystopia almost anyone might consider a target for revolution.
So the new "Hunger Games" - after fully challenging whether your loyalty to the franchise entitles you to be entertained - is almost as entertaining as the first "Hunger Games" film.
Which is a good thing for moviegoers, however many "Say what?" moments occur during the battles and struggles to see who emerges the "victor." (Watch out for the nasty baboons and the poisoned fog.) The TV reality show sweepstakes here aren't just wealth and fame but life and death.
A cool franchise full of cool people.
Two more of these things are on the way. They're filming them right now.
Pretty good news, I think. And boy do I know I've got company.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
Three stars (Out of four)
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Plummer and Stanley Tucci. 146 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
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