Now that Twilight has now officially vacated the YA building, the young-adult fantasy genre featuring hot, erotically-challenged young things involving themselves in mortally shit perilous adventures and fumbling ménage à trois is now deserted. The Hunger Games has been automatically nominated to the fill in the gap where many tween adaptations either popped their clogs or fell through (including Percy Jackson), with its feisty heroine, saucily strategic love triangles, the titular olympic death-match and its terribly familiar totalitarian milieu hitting chords with the hordes of blockbuster-starved masses, despite the fact that the entire shebang is one giant Battle Royale rip-off. Its first entry in the series wasn’t only a wholly bloodless affair (most deaths happen off-screen, mind), but also passably executed at best and laughably derivative at worst, throwing the aforementioned Fukasaku masterpiece along with The Running Man, Gladiator and THX 1138 into the blender to make one big dystopian smoothie. At least it features no wussy, glittering vampires or perennially sulking virgins whose greatest ambition in life is to domestically procreate half-breed bloodsucking foetuses.
The sequel, fetchingly-subtitled Catching Fire, thankfully improves on its predecessor to a certain level despite the film being practically a recapitulation of the first Hunger Games, only that the stakes are higher due to the fact that the participants involved are proven cold-blooded killers, making Katniss and Peeta’s survival less than likely. The formula is ever present – there’s another Reaping, another trip to the Capitol, accompanied by a Jon Bon Jovi-coiffured Woody Harrelson and the grandiloquently dressed Elizabeth Banks, who increasingly resembles like someone who just walked through Björk and Lady Gaga’s joint wardrobes, and then another round of Olympic gladiatorial death-match that doesn’t really involve famishment.
Catching Fire is far stronger when making dauntless, double-sword commentaries on mass oppression, autocracy and the despicable showmaking tactics of reality TV. Jennifer Lawrence’s fierce, indomitable heroine makes for a fascinating character to root for – a postmodern feminist and rebel fighter working resistance and discord within the system, with all smiles, wedding dresses and posturing loved-up relationships to appease and distract the rulers, supervised by Donald Sutherland’s white-haired tyrant Snow. She’s one of the better conceived literary protagonists as of late, one whose resolve doesn’t rely on a man or a saviour, but rather of her own wits, brawns and resource.
But as soon as the game commences, despite being occasionally thrilling in bits, the film loses its muscularity and boldness. There is so much set-up prior to the main event, that when it comes, it barely satisfies. For one, the new arena – now a raging rainforest replete with simulated poisonous mist, murderous baboons, Hitchcock-y birds, quicksilver lightnings and thunderous tsunamis – feel horribly artificial. I know it’s all control-room operated, designed to kill off these characters the quickest, but the games itself feel like a Playstation event, more about anticipating and overcoming one level after another rather than the bloodbath you’d come to expect from the opponents. The appearance of Sam Claflin’s handsome and ambiguous Finnick, Jena Malone’s unhinged dominatrix Johanna and Jeffrey Wright’s electrician Beetee are all welcome addition, adding some acting spice to the arena but little else. Their characters suffer from being action-movie archetypes rather than being full-blooded characters. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark gets little to do other than being there. At least he didn’t have to show off his ridiculous camouflage painting skills that sent my eyeballs pirouetting in the first film.
What Catching Fire possess, though, is a better director in the form of Francis Lawrence. Compared to Gary Ross’s first input, Lawrence’s sequel is finer and meatier, with better cinematography, ditching that hand-held camerawork better suited to a Paul Greengrass movie. The pacing is better judged, too, allowing scenes to breathe without being too rushed and characters to interact with some depth. But emerging from all this quagmire is really Jennifer Lawrence – that final shot chooses to close on her face, steely in resolve, eyes fiery with anger and conviction, heralding the explosive things to come in Mockingjay, which will go Deathly Hallows on us (two parts, natch). It’s a face you won’t soon forget, captivating and mesmeric and burning bright. Lawrence owns Catching Fire, and no one else.DIRECTOR: Francis Lawrence | CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland | SCREENPLAY: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt | DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate | RUNNING-TIME: 146 mins | GENRE: Sci-fi | COUNTRY: USA