November 24, 2013 -- I was hoping this sequel to the first Hunger Games film would be better than the first one and it is, so that's good. The first one looked a bit on the cheap side, with unconvincing romances and a basic flaw in the story's premise. In one way or other, all these problems have been fixed or partially mitigated in the second film.
The budget for this movie is nearly double that of the first one (the money from the first film fixed Lionsgate studio's pressing financial ills), and, as they say in the industry, the money shows up on the screen. Another Oscar-winning actor has been added to the cast for good measure. They also finally got rid of the sissy costume designer character and fleshed out some other characters who were a bit too stiff and impersonal in the first film.
In this film, we find the winners of the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, reprising her role from the first film) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, also reprising his role from the first film) touring the 12 districts of Panem and giving speeches. They are still caught in a love triangle with Katniss' old flame, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, also reprising his role) while Katniss dithers.
The Hunger Games are a series of brutal reality TV shows where gladiators, forcibly chosen at random from each district, fight to the death, usually leaving only one victor. The games are supposed to provide the means for the evil overlords of Panem (part of which used to be the United States of America in the past) for controlling the 12 districts they rule with an iron fist. The idea is the games are to show the masses who has the power, and to give them hope.
This, of course is nonsense. If the evil overlords wanted to maintain control over a conquered people, the last thing they'd want is a contest of battle skills which, as a byproduct, produce battle-hardened heroes with millions of followers. That kind of contest has the potential to create rebel leaders of courage and strategic skill. A much easier way to keep a conquered people cowed is with lotteries and game shows like “Big Brother” which require little or no skill. These provide false hope, and they don't produce any heroic people who could become the leaders of rebel armies.
This was the major plot flaw of the first movie, but this movie takes care of that by moving past it. The love triangle is still weak, but that is overshadowed in this film by a growing sense of danger. The rulers of this evil empire, embodied by the leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, reprising his role) finally wake up to the fact that Hunger Games winners are inspiring rebellion in the districts. They decide that Katniss must die. She is too much of an inspiration to the rebels.
Seeing that Katniss is a problem, President Snow takes advantage of a rule change period called the “Quarter Quell,” to change the rules of the Hunger Games so that previous game winners, who were supposed to be retired from the games, are put back into the games to fight again. This should be great for the ratings. The fix is in to make sure that Katniss dies. Hints are dropped about what is coming up, and the hints aren't easy to miss.
The game contestants are the usual collection warrior types, except for one team of high-tech geeks who win with brains, not brawn. They are Beetee (Jeffrey Wright of “Source Code”) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer of “Red.” One other elderly woman contestant (they are called “tributes” in the story) is Mags (Lynn Cohen of “Across the Universe”) is a person who volunteered for the games to save someone else. Likewise, Peeta volunteers to be in the game in order to save his mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, reprising his role).
As a result of a bigger budget, the games look more impressive, with better special effects than the first film. There is a kind of killer mist, killer animals that are probably digital, but they look real, a sort of tidal wave effect, and lots of other interesting effects in this film. The capital city of Panem also looks much bigger and more elaborate in this film. The addition of the very talented Philip Seymore Hoffman (“Mission Impossible III”) as the game designer also helps.
I liked several of the tributes in this edition of the Hunger Games. I'm not sure how many of them will be carried forward into the next movie, but they are an interesting bunch. I liked Beetee and Wiress, as well as the Xeena-like Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone of “Sucker Punch”). While the whole premise of Hunger Games themselves are flawed and counter-productive, this part of the story finally ends up where it should. The natural result of the Hunger Games idea final arrives, about 50 years later than it should have, but it finally gets there. Now we can get on to the real action, I hope.
This film also explores another idea, and that is revolutions can be started not just by skill, strength and cunning, but by love and compassion. One approach is like Spartacus, the other is like Ghandi. Maybe this story is really a combination of the two approaches. At any rate, this shows more subtlety than you would expect for this kind of story.
These Hunger Games films are self-referential in a way that keeps people who haven't read the books, like me, feeling like we're on the outside looking in. The films stand on their own, but also feel a bit like a club you either belong to, or you don't. At any rate, this series has evolved to a point where it is now a story that makes more sense. It has more fully realized characters and a storyline that is more interesting to follow. This film rates a B.
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