|Image courtesy of Lionsgate.|
And what makes the "Hunger Games" movies superior is attention to story, strong characters, better acting and some genuinely intriguing concepts. That's not to say that they are completely divorced from the genre in which they are placed. There is, after all, a sequence in "Catching Fire," the second of the series, during which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and several supporting characters must first flee poison gas and, then, a pack of angry baboons.
But despite a few CGI-heavy sequences such as that, the movie is more grounded in its story and its high concepts. For those who do not know the drill, the films are set in a dystopian future during which a male and female youth from each district of an unnamed nation must compete in a fight-to-the-death game as a punishment for a rebellion that took place against the Capital many years before.
Everdeen and her friend, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), were the sole survivors of the most recent set of games and, now, they are on a tour during which they must pretend to be in love and act enthused by the Big Brother government led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
But Snow is afraid that Everdeen has become a folk hero, of sorts, for the people and fears a rebellion. He entrusts the brains behind the Hunger Games - the somewhat absurdly named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - to put together a competition during which the winners of past Hunger Games must face off against one another. That way, he figures, these heroes of the people past and present will bump each other off and, perhaps, quell the rebellion.
Needless to say, Katniss and Peeta must once again defend themselves but, this time, attempt to forge alliances with a new group of competitors, including a brainy scientist (Jeffrey Wright), his partner (Amanda Plummer) and an angry young woman whose family was murdered by the Capital (Jena Malone).
For a blockbuster film of this type, "Catching Fire" begins on a restrained note and most of the action sequences do not come along until later in the film once the games begin. And while Lawrence is solid once again as the heroine, the supporting cast also brings the goods, including Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' fashion designer, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci as a late night talk show host and Woody Harrelson as Katniss' and Peeta's mentor.
Of course, this second film mostly paves the way for the third, and final, installment of the series. But as a midpoint film, it still manages to work both dramatically and thematically. It's a fun movie, certainly better than the drippy "Twilight" films and more involving than most of the major comic book franchise films that have been released in bulk during recent years.
Quite often, attempting to come up with something to write about a blockbuster series that relies heavily on formula and visual effects can become a chore. At this point, I don't know what else I can say about the "Transformers" films, for example, or many of the parts two, three or four of the summer movies we get every year. But "The Hunger Games" is a series that I'm looking forward to revisiting. It's a bit smarter and more engaging than most of its peers.