For fans of science fiction, the world of the Hunger Games franchise feels very familiar.
That's not a bad thing, of course. People have been telling stories set in distant future dystopias for decades. What original author Suzanne Collins (and by extension, directors Gary Ross and Francis Lawrence) have created is essentially a modern mixtape of dozens of classic tropes; a refreshing medley of a bunch of old tunes that are too good and too exciting to ever really go out of style. In many ways, the nightmarish land of Panem, with its dictatorial Capitol and rebellious Districts, is one of the most interesting universes of this type in quite some time.
So it's strange that the part of this universe that gives the franchise its title is the worst part of the whole thing. But we'll get to that momentarily.
As you probably know, the title refers to an annual event where the evil, wealthy Capitol randomly selects 24 young people from the twelve Districts to battle to the death on live television. This serves as entertainment for the 1% and a warning/punishment to the 99%. The government has found a way to use popular media to hold an entire nation in its grip. This is a trope we've seen before in films like the original Rollerball and The Running Man, but Collins' world building is more detailed and assured than those films. Panem is a fascinating, dense and terrifying place that just demands further examination.
Whenever the films spend time in Katniss Everdeen's hometown, it's easy to get lost in the downright insane juxtaposition between the powerful and and powerless. District 12 looks like a coal-mining town straight out of the Great Depression, so when the hoverjets and soldiers dressed like Stormtroopers show up, the result is startling and, well, just plain cool. When The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes our heroes to other Districts, the regional differences and the racial makeup of each location demands more questions and more answers. The organization of the Districts feels brutal and efficient, with each one representing a completely unique portion of a borderline enslaved population. Of course we'd like to know more!
The Capitol itself offers its own strange pleasures. Critics and audiences have had a field day making fun of Panem's elite, with their gaudy fashions, stupid names and obscene lifestyles, but there's plenty going on right underneath the surface. If you think Effie Trinket's outrageous wardrobe wouldn't look out of place in Versailles, you'd be right. If you think the absurd parties thrown by President Snow's cronies feels like it was torn out of a book on the downfall of the Roman Empire, you'd be right. As silly as the Capitol can be (and let's face it, it gets really, really silly), there's a constant undercurrent of historical menace. These fools may be blind to their excess and to the revolution brewing under their noses, but we, as an audience, know the signs of a culture that's about to collapse in a flurry of sudden violence. A great power can only fall when it gets to big for its britches and loses all sense of self-awareness and history. Any random character from the Capitol scenes of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire would look right at home in an illustration of the French Revolution, his head ready to meet to sharp edge of a guillotine.
This world is layered and bizarre and compelling... so it's a shame that that Hunger Games themselves are not. Everything surrounding them is terrific. Watching two dozen young people forced to parade around on television like American Idol contestants days before they fight to the death is chilling, as is the idea that some contestants have entered the game willingly. How can someone expect to smile and engage in camaraderie with a cheesy host and try out the latest fashions when his or death is imminent? It's ugly stuff. It's smart stuff. Unfortunately, the ball gets dropped the moment they enter the arena.
Although Catching Fire desperately attempts to change up the formula set by the same film, the wild landscapes of the arena are just plain dull when compared to the meticulously built world outside of its walls. Everything that happens is overly familiar, too. Once you get over the initial shock of seeing kids murdering kids, both The Hunger Games and its sequel devolve into competent-at-best survival stories. Without a R rating, they can't get too brutal. With only a two-and-a-half hour running time, we're not allowed to dwell on the details. Instead, we get a bunch of (mostly) attractive people running around woods and jungles, engaging in action that's entertaining but not remarkable. Jennifer Lawrence gives an astounding performance in both films as Katniss, but it's the arena scenes that put the real weight on her shoulders -- it's up to her and her alone to inject life into the most derivative and uninspired parts of the films and she gives it her all.
The conclusion of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire suggests the final films will be significantly different that their predecessors and that we'll most likely see more of Panem than the inside of an arena. That can only be a good thing. After all, the more time we spend with the fascinating sci-fi dystopia instead of the forest where people bloodlessly kill each other, the better.
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