Right off the bat, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has her very own I Am Legend moment. She’s in the restricted area outside District 12 with her trusty bow, surveying the land. The turkeys gobble-gobbling along better beware because she’s about to head off for her victory tour, celebrating her “win” at the 74th Hunger Games, and she’s not looking forward to playing the celebrity role that’s going to be expected of her.
Why would she? She’s going to have to pretend to be in love with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), when her heart, such as it is, belongs to Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). And she has little interest in reading tributes to the fallen players in the games, not with the unrest rising to a boil among the people of the districts.
But let’s get back to her Legend moment. Katniss longs to be that lonely hunter with a rabbit or turkey in her sights, a quick and well-earned morsel to sustain her. What haunts her, though, during these waking moments of solitude, and later in her nightmares, are images of the lives she had to take in order to survive. And it is this realization that hides in the shadows of director Francis Lawrence’s take on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, especially for those of us who may not have read the books but understand the real stakes of the games in this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult literary series.
You see there’s a revolution brewing and it is quite the televised affair — a digitized Survivor world with all of the trumped up pomp and circumstance of American Idol. But the truly frightening thing about this dystopian alternative realm is the idea that the downtrodden masses never take to arms when their young ones are called forth in the lottery-style selection process to compete for the honor of their districts in this winner-takes-all battle to the death.
We watched in mock horror during the first installment as baby-faced lambs faced slaughter by barely legal would-be veterans like Katniss.
This was an extinction-level inciting incident for humanity; where was our honor, our willingness to die for a righteous cause? In other words, how could this series advance with such a fatal flaw?
Well, this time out, the coolly calculating President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his new games master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), bypass this apparently negligible hitch by staging a 75th edition of the Hunger Games that taps past winners from the districts rather than the young and vulnerable. The ploy here is to stack the deck against Katniss, the girl on fire, whose daring endgame set the stage for the masses to believe they might have some hope against the impossible odds and forces standing in their way.
I suppose I have to cop to being a bit of an agnostic when it comes to The Hunger Games. If I want to imagine the dark side of humanity, I return to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery or Stephen King’s The Long Walk or The Running Man. If I hunger for a young savior to overthrow a corrupt system, I consume the sweet and sour decadence of Frank Herbert’s Dune series (especially the later books which, like history, grasp the tragic repetition in even the best of intentions). Katniss wants nothing to do with rebellion, and it seems that we’re not too keen on it either.
What we require, instead, is a more straightforward (minus the moral complexity) adventure with special effects and an “epic” sense of scale. We want to see our gladiators with IMAX clarity. And it doesn’t matter that we find ourselves not just running alongside the plot, but a few paces ahead of unfolding events. We’ve “read” the books and the film confirms the points for us.
Francis Lawrence is perfectly suited to this kind of assignment, equally adept with integrating performers against computer-generated backdrops, while taking advantage of each performer’s shorthand meaning. And Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) serves as the ideal instrument for her director.
The newly minted Academy Award winner has the requisite bearing and opaqueness to accept whatever concerns we, as an audience, decide to project onto her. She’s the instinctive warrior for some and the mildly conflicted lover of two very different men for the young romantics. To even a jaded critic like me, she bears the psychic scars of killing and surviving. Altogether, Katniss is exactly what we expect, but I wonder if this is what we truly need to start a real revolutionary fire in popular culture? (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: B-
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