If one were to take “Ben-Hur” (1959), add a little “Planet of the Apes” (1968), some “Star Wars” and a dash of Spielberg from the ’70s to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the end result would be “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second installment of the billion-dollar franchise that far exceeds the first and is willing to dig more into its characters, and of course, its special effects.
When heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hits the screen in the beginning of the film, she is seen hunting turkeys, scoping the post-apocalyptic terrain that surrounds her. Everdeen’s life has been drastically altered after winning the 74th Hunger Games, and one can even assume that Everdeen has been suffering from PTSD and seeking refuge in the arms of her secret love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
Everdeen’s life has been thrust into the spotlight in this dystopia as everyone now sees her through an almost TMZ-type of filter. Her public relationship with co-champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is a faÃ§ade in order to give the people what they want – a mawkish narrative that love transcends all while living in turbulent times. When antagonist President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enstates the 75th Hunger Games will be a “Quarter Quell” (an event that happens every 25th year that has a special new twist/rule) will be that the contestants will be reaped from the remaining Hunger Games victors, turning the bloodthirsty event into an all-star game of previous winners, Everdeen and Mellark are taken off their victory tour and thrown onto a mysterious island.
Like every second film in a franchise, “Catching Fire” became denser in terms of action sequences and increased political undertone with added characters portrayed by some of the finest character actors of today such as Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master”), Jeffrey Wright (“Casino Royale”) and Amanda Plummer (“Pulp Fiction”).
In a scene that magnifies the “girl power” discourse that “Catching Fire” exudes, Everdeen is on stage with Caesar Flickerman, played by the always-dependable Stanley Tucci (“The Devil Wears Prada”) doing his best Ryan Seacrest meets Las Vegas dinner theater host, Everdeen walks on stage wearing a white wedding dress provided by Snow.
Urged by Flickerman to display the beauty of the dress, Everdeen twirls and the dress proceeds to catch fire, transforming her gown into a blue-feathered mockingjay dress designed by her fashion guru Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
The dress transforming into the mockingjay symbolizes the revolution that Snow fears is emerging among the districts. By indulging in Flickerman’s request, Everdeen is releasing herself from the shackles of conformity and the social obligations that, up to this point, has been fulfilling. Lawrence’s convincing performance makes the female emancipation rhetoric cogent and refreshing to see from the patriarchal heroes one is usually accustomed to see on the screen.
A nod to Hollywood’s past does not hinder what director Francis Lawrence and writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt are trying to accomplish. They bring a fine balance of character development and adventure to the film, but with all these references unvarnished, it reminds the audience they are watching a film, and might hinder full immersion into the “Hunger Games” world created in author Suzanne Collins’ original novels.
If Francis Lawrence directs the third film, he should perhaps call upon the tutelage of Quentin Tarantino to show him how to conceal these winks hovering around the parameters of larceny – not that there is anything wrong with that.