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Catching Fire finds the Hunger Games saga starved for new ideas — but its heroine still rocks

Katniss Power

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When last we left Katniss Everdeen, she of the steady bow and quivering lip, our screen heroine had thwarted the totalitarian entertainment state at their own game(s), doubling down with a double-suicide pact and sharing the crown with her fellow District 12 contestant, Peeta Mellark. The two became fan-favorite stars — as did the actors who played them, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, albeit in a slightly less dog-kill-dog-on-TV reality — perpetrating a romance storyline so as not to rock the status quo. Donald Sutherland's President Snow looked disapprovingly at Katniss' mockingjay pin, a hometown trinket becoming a symbol for bucking the system, and metaphorically twirled his mustache. Author Suzanne Collins, it is assumed, cashed a large check. We the viewers settled in, knowing that further installments of this bountiful pop-lit film franchise — one that promised to put the "YA" back in "dystopia" — were on the way.

Chapter Two is now upon us, and like its high-grossing predecessor, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire mixes broad social satire, blockbuster pulp, teen angst and a vintage-serial sense of thrills, spills, chills, etc., into the bleakest of bubblegum packages. Against a nuclear-wintry landscape, Katniss and her actual blue-eyed beau (played by either Liam Hemsworth or a large piece of wood; it's difficult to discern) are free to pass the time hunting turkeys and dealing with her PTSD. She and fellow "victor" Peeta are occasionally trotted out to the various shantytown districts, using public appearances in front of Russian Constructivist posters to talk up the glory of the Capitol. Except propaganda isn't stopping the murmurings of revolution. At speeches, certain crowd members hold up three fingers in the air: the mockingjay gesture. Truncheons come out. Gunshots are fired. The center can't hold.

Out come the bread and circuses again, only now former winners are pitted against each other. Welcome back, gaudy caricatures of carping showbiz parasites in proto-Gaga outfits, along with Woody Harrelson's drunken mentor. Once more into the fray, photogenic young actors who must battle various obstacles (blistering mist, baboons, rainstorms of blood) as well as each other to survive. How we've missed you, ongoing sexual tension between Lawrence and Hutcherson's most-dangerous-game contestants, as they gallantly try to retain their humanity while firing arrows into sternums.

New faces join the franchise, including Sam Claflin (generically dreamy), Jena Malone (spiky), Jeffrey Wright (thespianial), Amanda Plummer (scenery-chewy) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phillip Seymour Hoffman-y). But what's missing is the shock of the new — a palpable absence that isn't helped by the narrative and structural similarity to the first film: tough times, guilt, training sessions, defiance through custom-made couture (dig what Katniss' new dress turns into), countdown, game time, death-dealing, rinse, repeat.

Even with the original film's director, Gary Ross, out and I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence in, there don't seem to be any great leaps forward or regressive falls backward. Director Lawrence primarily operates in two shot modes: six inches away from actors' faces, or three inches away from actors' faces. (You could run The Passion of Joan of Arc in a 100-day loop, and you would still not see as many close-ups as you do here.) Tonal consistency within a series is one thing. Catching Fire comes closer to a carbon copy.

Collins' books were phenomenal, and not just because they introduced YA readers to far-out notions of class warfare, celebrity-culture vulgarity, social Darwinism in extremis and Neil Postman 101 theories about amusing ourselves to death; any resemblance to The Hunger Games' world and ours was never supposed to be coincidental. Nor was it just because they courted controversy with brutal kid-on-kid violence, though that certainly gave them an op-ed readiness and an edginess that, say, the Harry Potter and Twilight books did not have.

It really came down to Katniss, as compelling a character — never mind a female character — as the literary genre has given us. It can't be overstated how vital Jennifer Lawrence is when it comes to selling Katniss as a heroine who contains multitudes: the athleticism, the vulnerability, the guilt, the grit, the martyrdom, the femininity, even the humor. (Watch her reaction shot when a competitor strips naked in an elevator.) You don't need to have seen Lawrence's work in Winter's Bone, Like Crazy, or Silver Linings Playbook to appreciate the complexity she brings to this role, and how easy she makes it seem.

Like the book, Catching Fire ends openly, setting up a shitstorm that will take up the two films required to cover the final novel. But we won't come back because of that. We will come back to see how Lawrence deals with it. The odds of that are ever in her favor.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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