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Movie Review: 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire (film)

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). PG-13. Dir:Francis Lawrence

This film is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

Based on Suzanne Collin's sci-fi adventure trilogy of novels, Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues the saga as a sequel to last year's popular Hunger Games. After winning/surviving the gladiatorial 74th annual Hunger Games from the previous film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) returns home to District 12, finding out that her previous heroic acts at the game may have inspired a civil uprising against the current totalitarian government ruled by President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Seeing Katniss as a threat to his power, President Snow, hoping to get her killed, announces a new game called a Quarter Quell, a special version of the Games where all the former victors/survivors (including Katniss) must now battle each other to the death. With help from her mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and her teammate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss tries to survive by forming an alliance with some of the other players at the Games.

I haven't read the books. I really enjoyed the first film--a true breath of fresh air from the predictable monotony of brainless action flicks, shallow teen romances, and gross-out comedies of Hollywood. Part TV's Survivor, part Japanese film/novel Battle Royale, part The Most Dangerous Game, and Gladiator, the film focused more on brains than brawn. Jennifer Lawrence was amazing as Katniss, embodying both quiet maturity and selfless dignity beyond her age.

This second installment is even better, bigger, deeper, and more thrilling. With a higher budget and a new director (Francis Lawrence replacing the first film's Gary Ross), the action, drama, and situations are also darker as the story focuses more on the novel's oppressive, dystopian world. Author Suzanne Collins had said that she was inspired by history and literature-- in particular, the story of Theseus and gladiatorial games of Roman times. From watching this film, I am also strongly reminded of the themes explored in George Orwell's classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dark novel about a police state under a totalitarian government. Omnipresent government surveillance, secret rebel societies, and government propaganda--they're all present in this film.

While Katniss starts off as a (hard-to-control) pawn in President Snow's political game, her gradual growth into an eventual (while reluctant) leader is engaging and fun to watch. Jennifer Lawrence, with her vast emotional range, is even better here than the first time--she is ultimately the pulse and heart of the film. She is a character I found hard not to root for. Donald Sutherland is devilishly fun as the cruel and calculating President Snow. Jena Malone as the spunky ally Johanna is memorable. The rest of the cast pull off an admirable job.

The action in this film is first rate, with much emphasis in the thrills. The Games' arena is still a jungle, but holds strange secrets of its own. There is less use of "shaky-cam" here than the first film. The villains are also a lot more dangerous and older. As perhaps expected, the violence, while still retaining its PG-13 level, is more frequent. Violence against the innocents by the government is also more common as the film's focus goes beyond the Game. Some of the best scenes involve a group of dangerous animals and a deadly fog that boils the skin. Great stuff!

Admittedly, though, some aspects of the film did feel a bit off, if not all too convincing--the whole, exaggerated reality-TV elements of the film, in particular. While the film successfully pokes fun at our media-saturated society, it is hard to imagine a reality-TV show like this playing in a heavily government-controlled communistic society like let's say, North Korea. Still, using entertainment to pacify the masses (such as in Roman times) isn't something all that new.

Overall, this is a solid, highly engrossing film. Running at about 2 hours and a half, I was surprised how well it kept me engaged throughout. The thrills are aplenty, the story is solid, the characters are emotionally deep, themes are fleshed out, and Jennifer Lawrence is excellent in her role.

My Rating: **** out of **** Stars

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