Hollywood filmmakers are, as a rule, bad at sequels. It's as if all the creativity and inspiration were expended on the first film, hence the second film often feels flat and generally disappoints. Been there, done that, and this latest incarnation just isn't that interesting.
Surprisingly, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is an exception, a production that is astonishingly rich and one in which everything that was compelling about the first (there will be four films; the third novel of Suzanne Collins' trilogy will be split) has been taken to a whole new level. Not only is the adventure — and "The Hunger Games," at its core, is a riveting tale of adventure — far more harrowing, but the characters are given greater depth. To include, of course, Katniss Everdeen, the narrative's protagonist, and a role that Jennifer Lawrence convincingly inhabits with passion and conviction.
It is in "Catching Fire" that Katniss begins to fully comprehend how lethal are the rulers of this futuristic world called Panem, and the lengths they and President Snow (a chilly and remorseless Donald Sutherland) will go to in order to hold onto power. In this police state, a haunting image of fascism past (and present, North Korea coming to mind), those who live in the capital are engulfed in a spectacle of decadent affluence while the surrounding districts (there are 12) slowly starve, recipients of a concentrated depredation.
When Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are declared the winners of the 74th Hunger Games, they become, absent any intention, the symbols of hope for a populous growing ever more discontent and rebellious, something that concerns the ruling class, most especially Snow. In consultation with his new Master Gamer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he devises a strategy that he hopes will result in the elimination of both Katniss and Peeta: to celebrate the anniversary of the 75th Hunger Games, all the contestants will be former victors. And Heavensbee assures Snow that neither Katniss nor Peeta will survive.
And so begins another media event that President Snow hopes also will serve as a huge distraction for the people of Panem, quelling any nascent restlessness. Hence these games are even more severe, Darwin on steroids, a survivalist's nightmare, held in an enormous terrarium where the players fear not only each other but also the jungle environment.
But here is the question that is raised: What is there about this trilogy (there are more than 50 million copies in print), and its adaptation to the big screen (box office for "Catching Fire" is projected to be some $161 million the first weekend) that has so completely captured the imaginations of readers and moviegoers? Perhaps it's not one thing; rather it's an amalgamation of pop culture-meets-Hollywood.
What the Panem Hunger Games amounts to is a deadly reality television show, a now familiar genre that has grown incrementally in the last decade. Audiences have become insatiable when it comes to the voyeuristic pleasures of watching what we're told is real life (isn't "The Hunger Games" a variation of "Survivor"? Or is that too much of a stretch?). And there is the appeal of a franchise that has at its center a young, spirited, rebellious, athletic heroine, the ultimate outcome of Title IX. Katniss Everdeen rocks, is resilient, courageous and prevails. Audiences clearly are ready for a woman who by her presence indicates that it no longer just a man's world. As a character, she shatters the glass ceiling and audiences cheer.
As entertainment, "Catching Fire" is one heck of a riveting and engrossing film that sets up nicely the third installment. The only caveat is that all of the backstory revealed in the first film is essential to enjoying this finely done sequel.