Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.
Our advisories: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.
Surely there is a future,
and your hope will not be cut off.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13.13
In this, the second of a projected four dystopian film series based on Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy (leave it to Hollywood to get four films out of three books!), the two winners of the Games of the first film return to their families in District 12.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has kept her supposed lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) at a distance. As winners they now live in special, lavish quarters set apart from their always hungry fellow citizens, but Katniss cannot enjoy the fruits of her victory. This really is Katniss’s story and, this time, the story gets far more help from the no-longer-green actress Jennifer Lawrence, giving us by far the most interesting heroine to be found in any of the adventure films of this or recent years.
Katniss really is in love with her longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but at the climax of the first Games had pretended to be in love with Peeta so that the vast audience watching would believe that their threat to commit suicide if both of them were not allowed to survive was real. While out hunting for a turkey in the forbidden forest, her PTSD that has disturbed her sleep now ruins her shot, and later when someone speaks of her fame, the conscience stricken girl responds that it came from killing people.
She is surprised when the dictator of Panem, euphemistically known as President Snow (Donald Sutherland), pays her a visit to tell her that she had better convince him that she and Peeta really are in love when they make their Victory Tour. He is concerned that she is becoming the focal point of a growing resistance among the people of the 12 districts. His fears are not groundless, she and Peeta discover as they ride the luxury monorail and stop to make their speeches in each of the districts. She sees rebellious graffiti on walls, and in District 11, home of the young tribute Rue whom she had befriended in the first film, she pays tribute to her dead friend and seeks to comfort the family. Out in the large audience an old man raises his hand in a defiant salute not approved by the state. Soldiers push through the crowd to seize and kill him, this cutting short their visit.
At the Capitol President Snow is definitely not happy with the Victory Tour, which has revealed the restlessness among those in the outer districts held in bondage. He talks with the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who replaced the one in the first film—that worthy had been forced to commit suicide because of his failure to completely control the outcome of the Games. Plutarch opposes the President’s plan to have Katniss killed right away, suggesting a more elaborate scheme. This will be the 75th Hunger Games, known as a Third Quarter Quell. In the past a new element had been added to the 25th year: this time it will be to enroll all of the past tributes, thus returning Katniss and Peeta to what he assures will be certain death. Not only that, but in their struggle to survive, he tells the President, the people watching from all the districts will see her scrambling for survival so that they will then turn against her.
As in the first film there is a period of training and appearances on national television. Their coach Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is his usual lost in an alcoholic haze self, though more supportive this time. Their ditzy chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) acts and dresses her usual frivolous self at the beginning, but when they part reveals a more serious and loving nature that has been hidden deeply within. Cinna (Lenny Kravit) comes up with an even more spectacular costume for the pair as they ride in a chariot around the vast hippodrome before the huge crowd—their clothing emits tongues of fire, that, like the fire in the story of Moses and the burning bush, flames brightly but does not consume them. Stanley Tucci is as over-the-top as ever as Capitol TV star Caesar Flickerman, schmoozing with the pair.
Watching on TV, the President is not pleased when all the tributes aligned on stage take the unprecedented step of joining hands when they lift their arms in farewell to the audience. Haymitch again introduces Katniss to a patron who will offer crucial help during the games. All too soon Katniss is transported to the tube that will lift her to the arena. She and Cinna say their emotional good byes, and then as she is raised upwards, there is a terrible act calculated to throw her off balance emotionally.
The second act of the film is as exciting as the Games depicted in the first film. Katniss and the others find themselves on their perches set in a large circular lake, at the center of which is an artificial island and the cornucopia with supplies. At the signal, Katniss and Peeta dive into the lake and swim frantically for shore so they can flee into the forest. During the preparation period the two had arranged temporary alliances with the inventive tech geek Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), his partner Wireless (Amanda Plumber), the very angry young Johanna (Jena Malone), and the gladiator-like Finnick (Sam Clafin). They will all need each other because of the hazards that Plutarch has cooked up– invisible force fields, a poisonous fog, a band of aggressive mandrills, the voices of loved ones emitted by birds, and of course the other tributes out to eliminate them–all this in a tropical habitat.
During the ensuing struggles Katniss’s archery skills are crucial, but so is a gift parachuted to them at night by their patron, this enabling them to obtain water when they are away from the lake. Most puzzling to her, however, is the life saving sacrifice for her of a tribute whom she did not know. This and other questions concerning the defiance evidenced in the various districts are revealed in the surprising climax of the film—no, anti-climax, this being really a bridge film leading to the last two. If you have read the books, you know what this is, but in case you have not, I won’t spoil this by going into the details.
The new director Francis Lawrence handles the action and actors with great skill. As mentioned earlier, Ms. Lawrence is better this time as the conflicted heroine, completely believable as a teenager pushed to the limits of her mental and physical endurance. Her wrestling with the demons created by her forcible killings lift this film above the far too many other escapist adventure tales pouring forth from Hollywood. In them the hero knocks off people by the dozens but suffers no pangs of remorse or other effects. Unlike the Japanese film Battle Royal, which is somewhat similar in that a class of adolescent students are forced to kill one another until only one survives, this film focuses upon one participant so that we get to know and admire her. And—slight spoiler here for those who haven’t read the books—she remains throughout the series, a teenager, not becoming an unbelievable master leader of the rebellion that will threaten the tyranny of the Capitol.
Praise also is due to the Art and Set Decoration teams (John Collins, Adam Davis, and Robert Fechtman) and Costume Designer (Trish Summerville) for their great skills in showing the contrast between the grim world of the districts and the sensuous, selfish world of the Capitol. The outlandish dresses and puffy hairstyles of Effie Trinket and the denizens of the Capitol ought to remind one of the extravagant styles of the corrupt court of France’s court of King Louis XV. So do the overly ornate candelabra and lavish plates of food and drink consumed at the party held for the tributes and the influential citizens. I would not have been surprised if one of them, referring to the half-starved and raggedly dressed inhabitants of the districts, had said, “Let them eat cake!”
As with the first film, and indeed for virtually all sci-fi stories, my main criticism is that the secularized writer has no understanding of the resilience of the Church, and thus presents a dystopian society devoid of its presence and the prophetic role it has so often assumed. Both the Russian and Communist regimes thought they were eliminating it, but failed in their sometime ruthless persecutions. In such countries as Poland the Church was a rallying point for the resisters and a source of hope for those seeking a just society.
I do appreciate that, in this film, hope is a central theme, first voiced by Prim when she says to Katniss, “Since the last games, something’s different. I can see it.” Her sister asks, “What can you see?” to which she answers, “Hope.” Even in the totalitarian society of Panem President Snow cannot extinguish it (nor Hitler, Stalin, Mao, nor going way back, the conquerors of the Jews and the later persecutors of the Christians). Katniss will need hope as much as her archery skills in order not just to survive, but to thrive—and best of all, she and her sister show by the way they relate to others that they possess something even better, well expressed by the conclusion of a famous poem by the apostle Paul quoted above, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.