I’m still not sure why The Hunger Games, with its heavy-handed Marxist moralizing about the inherent corruptness of the one-percenters, became the huge cultural phenomenon it did last year (yes, it was only last year), but it did. Maybe tweens were looking to glom onto another corny romance as The Twilight Saga was wrapping up, and on the lookout for a pouty heroine, found one in Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. The audience for that movie — and now Catching Fire, its first of three sequels, due in successive years, like hurricanes or the flu virus — was a mix of sardonic historians and giddy youth, lured by the barely-out-of-puberty heroics by Katniss, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and their ilk.
I don’t see the appeal myself. Both films are garish romps that tend to keep me off-kilter about whether the actors, set designers, costumers and director (this time, Francis Lawrence, who made Constantine — as if that’s a good thing) know what they are doing. When good actors like Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks ham it up like they’re being paid by the pork lobby, you wonder: Are they just excited to know they can do anything and still be in a hit, or are they embarrassed by their idiotic hair-don’ts as the audience is for them? Sure, Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman is meant to be a post-modern Ryan Seacrest, and the flittery inconsequence of the Capital City residents who vomit up their dinners to make room for desserts is meant to mirror the fall of Rome. But c’mon, is anyone under 30 gonna get that? And isn’t everyone over 30 appalled by the Mexican-whorehouse-on-angel-dust look of it all?
Best not to think too much about it — just shrug it off, make catty comments about Katniss, and enjoy watching our own culture play itself out.
The plot takes place soon after The Hunger Games ended. Katniss and Peeta are living in style in District 12, still pretending to be in love after becoming co-winners of the 74th games, but in private having no contact. Instead, she’s in love with Gale (luggish Liam Hemsworth, seemingly beat down by the disaster that is Miley), who never smiles or gives her any reason to like him. (Girls — go figure.) Katniss’ victory at the games has the politboro antsy, since her defiance of the rules seems to have given hope to the oppressed folks throughout Panem. President Snow (Donald Sutherland, who seems to be the only one who bothered to act) devises a plan with his new master of the games (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to put an end to the rebellion: The 75th games will be a sort of all-stars, with every surviving former winner competing. Katniss is sure to die — or at least she’ll have to kill Peeta and look like a bitch on national TV. Basically, Snow wants her to become Kim Kardashian.
The plan doesn’t work — how could it? There are still two more movies to go.
In not working, it does up the stakes a bit, with a new game board, new opponents (we spend a lot of time with some who die off pretty quickly) and finally some new man-meat to ogle at in Finnick (Sam Claflin, pictured). The ending, which suffers from Empire Strikes Back-itis in that it doesn’t feel compelled to resolve anything, nonetheless comes as a small surprise. But as soon as the studio greenlit this movie, it stopped being a movie and started being a commodity: A package deal meant to entertain the masses and churn money and distract us from the Obamacare website and sooner-than-you-think midterm elections. How is that any different than the Hunger Games themselves?
Two stars. Opens in wide release Friday.