REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson. Directed by Francis Lawrence. M.
Without a beginning or an end, a middle movie occupies a difficult transitional space and time that ultimately can never be a satisfying whole.
However, the influences of story-telling ability, performances, direction and production still apply - and the knowledge that you will be left in the lurch can ameliorate the frustration of such suspension.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an adaptation of the middle novel in a dystopian, satirical trilogy by Suzanne Collins - but since the third book is to be split into two films, as is the avaricious trend these days, this second movie is actually the first half of two middle-bridges between overall start and finish.
It rightly presumes its audience has seen the first film and doesn't waste time recapping what happened, even though the first film screened in Nelson 18 months ago.
It returns to the post-apocalyptic, totalitarian, fascist state of Panem, which annually has a so-called Hunger Games in which a boy and girl, aged 12 to 18, from each of 12 districts become contestants (called tribunes) in a domed, computer-controlled battleground to fight until only one of them is left alive.
It's a mix of Greek mythology, Roman gladiatorial combat and reality TV for voyeurs of violence, overseen by the state to provide a substitute for war by distracting the masses and diminishing the possibility of insurrection.
But in the 74th Hunger Games talented archer-hunter Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) cunningly manipulated the games-controllers to allow two winners - herself and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow District 12 contestant and a former schoolmate who's in love with her.
Catching Fire starts with Panem's President Snow (Donald Sutherland), wary of underdogs succeeding and inspiring an uprising, worrying that Katniss has become a menace to the state, her defiance making her a beacon of hope fomenting a simmering revolution.
With the help of a devious new head gamesmaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he sets out to destroy her image, forcing her to co-operate by threatening to otherwise destroy her district, while also using force - soldiers known as peacekeepers and looking like stormtroopers out of Star Wars - to quickly quash any signs of rebellion.
Eventually, Snow announces a Hunger Games Quarter-Quell, in which the victors of the past 24 games must return to fight again until only one is left. Katniss is determined that tribune must be Peeta.
Much of this sequel's strength and chances of success, as in the first film, are in Lawrence's magnetic performance, which has even more depth and dimension here than previously.
Not only is she a stubborn, smart, brooding and compassionate young woman and a resourceful, intrepid warrior but finds herself emotionally torn between her feelings for handsome boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) back in her district and her developing affection for Peeta.
It's not surprising that most of the other actors' best scenes are with Lawrence, be it Sutherland's sinister president, Hutcherson's more aware and accepting Peeta or the trio that play Katniss's support team - dissolute mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), admiring style director Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) or chaperone Effie (Elizabeth Banks), the latter in outfits that would make Liberace or Elton John envious.
Stanley Tucci again oozes oiliness as a TV host with a rictus smile while Hoffman's wily gamesmaster arouses distrust. Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Sam Clafin all have moments as tribunes in a jungle arena filled with a clockwork of deadly dangers so supervised that it would seem the games controllers can determine any contestant's fate.
Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, music videos), no relation to Jennifer, replaces Gary Ross as director, making Catching Fire darker while embedding in the story an increasingly portentous sense of upcoming public revolt versus state suppression.
Lawrence maintains a steady pace, with the 146-minute running time not a viewing problem. The film's moments of spectacle, special effects and overall production design are generally impressive - and provide some compensation for the lack of freshness a sequel invariably can have and the sense of deja vu from repetitious elements.
The story, having developed its themes in the first 90 minutes, builds to an exciting climax, only to come to an abrupt halt with a surprise but in its rush leaving several dangling loose ends.
Overall, though, Catching Fire manages to do what a middle movie must do: effectively extend the story, keep interest alive and the audience still hungry for more.
- © Fairfax NZ News