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‘Catching Fire’ could be powerful, but like the Hunger Games, it’s just a distraction

Like the Twilight series before it, the Hunger Games franchise is a young adult pop culture phenomenon. The three vampire novels spawned four blockbuster movies, a feat that will be repeated with the Hunger Games trilogy of books.

“Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is the second of the four planned movies. And like its predecessor, as well as most of those Twilight movies, it’s a pretty junky movie: all slapdash and flash.

“Catching Fire” hits all the necessary plot points but it registers none of the atmosphere of terror that this dystopian tale requires. And it’s so thin on characterization that none of the relationships resonates either, no matter how dramatic the emotions or desperate the circumstances.

Except for one big development at the climax of the movie, “Catching Fire” feels like a re-tread of the first “Hunger Games.” (Not even a powerful cast that includes Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, and Philip Seymour Hoffman can hide that fact.)

To recap the premise: sometime in the future, a repressive dictatorship rules over a country called Panem. To punish its citizens for having once attempted revolution, the powers that be have instituted the Hunger Games. These Games pit a randomly selected boy and girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts against each other in a battle to the death, literally.

Each year, 24 “contestants” (mostly teenagers) enter a hostile environment and only one leaves alive. Since these Games are always broadcast live to a national audience, the hero/victims become media darlings.

The surprise winner of the first Hunger Games movie is a feisty but conflicted girl named Katniss Everdene, played by Jennifer Lawrence. She becomes a national hero of course but also earns the ire of the great and powerful President Snow (Donald Sutherland) because of the unconventional way she chose to win. (See the first movie for more details.) He’s deeply suspicious of her, as he should be, and spends much of the movie (too much of the movie, if you ask me) debating with the Games’ organizer (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) just how best to deal with her.

Sutherland and Hoffman say that because Katniss has “become a beacon of hope” and a symbol for the people of Panem, that they must destroy her image, and that eventually she should die but “in the right way.”

These two concoct a scenario that forces Katniss back into another round of Hunger Games and thus we get a kind of do-over of the first Games. The problem with these random and arbitrary “games” the contestants are forced to play is they’re so reminiscent of The Survivor reality TV show, albeit with deadlier consequences, that they’re hard to take seriously. They do provide the film (and books) with a continual supply of built-in action sequences however, a fact that no doubt explains the franchise’s popularity.

I find the Hunger Games series frustrating because the premise is so rich with satiric possibilities. It sets itself up to be a grand critique of our media-saturated world, a world full of such overpowering images that the oppression and degradation of its people is either overlooked, dismissed, or denied. But there’s no real follow-through.

As consumers of The Hunger Games books and movies, we, like the inhabitants of Panem, are constantly distracted from what’s really going on by all those action set-pieces that keep coming at us, one right after another.

If the films had more bite to them, if the deaths were more real, for instance, and the emotional terror of the games better conveyed, the Hunger Games could be powerful stuff. Instead, they’re just one more distraction.

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