Hunger Games 2 never catches fire
By the time Philip Seymour Hoffman enters The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with his usual post-Oscar smugness, viewers are so worn out from the brackish color and over-complicated plot nonsense that no one in the audience I saw it with laughed upon hearing Hoffman's character name, Plutarch Heavensbee-or maybe they were just dumbstuck. Once you enter the world of The Hunger Games, the pseudo-literary conceits, futuristic sci-fi and dystopian speculation are entirely witless. It's glum, unenjoyable junk, not campy enough to laugh at.
This franchise illustrates how rotten contemporary filmmaking has gotten; the producers refuse to make the series better. They merely follow the pattern set by the atrocious Lord of the Rings films where an overlong narrative sends its heroine Katniss Everdene (Jennifer Lawrence) through a quasi-political demolition derby designed to divert the masses while submitting them to entertainment-cum-slavery. The games contestants fight each other yet never revolt against their impoverished, dictatorial circumstances. In Catching Fire, the filmmakers never employ an efficient narrative-like Paul W.S. Anderson's 2008 Death Race which used a similar competitive premise to spectacular and moving effect.
As escapism, this is esthetically dreary and intellectually static. It avoids exploring the basic analogy to our contemporary victimization by media and politics-that new sci-fi state: not Oligarchy or Aristocracy but a media-run Mediocracy, to paraphrase Mike Judge's brilliant Idiocracy. (For an artistic version of this theme see Chen Kaige's new Caught in the Web.) This Hunger Games 2 represents such a blatant, unembarrassed, unimaginative marketing offensive that it repeats all the worst aspects of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Twilight, starting with giving the helm to a director incapable of providing momentum, excitement, seriousness, craft or beauty-in other words, who cannot direct.
Francis Lawrence, a commercials and music-video pro, suits the cynical production; his ineptitude derives from the visual illiteracy of the TV/videogame industry whose audiences are so accustomed to banal sensationalism and incoherent form that they no longer know how to watch media. They're as hopelessly gullible and unperceptive as the denizens of Katniss' cat-piss, sub-classical dystopia-a combination of life-or-death tournaments, Truman Show-style media domination and dull references to the literature assignments students didn't read in Junior High. (When Katniss is attacked by birdlike creatures who mimic the voices of loved ones, these "Jabberjays" pointlessly copy and bowdlerize the sirens and Stymphalians of Greek mythology.) Lawrence achieves no "magical" effects that create a mood of visionary wonderment; the arbitrariness of poison fog and other impediments on Katniss' obstacle course insult our intelligence. The film looks cheap, uninspired, like an episode of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead which makes its attempts at satirizing TV-game-show crudeness laughable-yet never funny. (Stanley Tucci's performance as emcee Caesar Flickerman is especially awful. Phonier than ever, Tucci cannot satirize his own smarminess.)
Catching Fire is another step in the cinema's destruction, making movies more like television. The supposed quality cast doesn't help. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are wasted and Hoffman looks like he's cashing his check in his street clothes--a fitting contrast to the absurd costumes that make Lawrence look princessy yet catatonic. Lawrence's athletic, healthy-girl beauty should make her an ideal heroine for a democratic adventure flick-the Nimrod scene where she shoots an arrow into the artificial heavens ought to wreck the Games the way Omarosa does various reality-TV shows. As Katniss and her eunuchy partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) travel on their Victory tour, a peon shouts "Tell us what you really think!" Yet Hunger Games 2 never empowers its audience. With this franchise, no thinking is allowed.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair