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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Photo: Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13
Targeted 21 November 2013

This polished sequel should please Katniss' legion of fans, but the uninitiated still won't feel the heat.

Popularity Contest

Having fun with Catching Fire: ads for Cinna's fashion products

The first Hunger Games movie turned into a phenomenon, the kind Hollywood was anxious to latch onto as the Twilight saga and Harry Potter series reached their cinematic conclusions. Since then scads of other movies have been released in hopes of spawning the next big thing. None of them have taken hold. John Carter. Ender's Game. The Mortal Instruments. Beautiful Creatures. For better or worse, they failed to capture the mainstream imagination. Up next, Divergent will try to make the leap from tweenage books to film.

For now, The Hunger Games has all the momentum. The trilogy, based on books by Suzanne Collins, plays off contemporary concepts like reality TV and social media and wraps them into a tale of population control, despotism, class warfare and revolution. In short, perhaps the future state of the United States.

There's also an odd mix of old and new as this future-based story features a high-tech dome - one that shames the Thunderdome of the old Mad Max days (grownups can look forward to an all-new Mad Max series launch in 2015) - while mixing in obvious references and vibes of Ancient Rome, a blood-hungry era that didn't end all that well.

At the heart of it all is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook). She's aces at archery and she very well might prove to be the government's downfall as her popularity sparks a revolution.

He's Just Not That Into You

Typical of sequels, this one treads familiar ground while also advancing the broader story arc.

While it was originally promised previous Hunger Games champions would never have to compete again, Katniss has thrown a wrench into the machinery and the gamesmanship has created a new twist: in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, the best of the best will be brought back for another sacrificial round. It's the politically correct way of eliminating Katniss and throwing cold water on the insurgency she's sparking.

That's the story at a very high level. Honestly, it's hard to understand what all the fuss is about.

This second chapter is technically well made and sports oodles of CGI-heavy visuals along with a good cast that now includes some impressive new co-stars. Adding the likes of Jeffrey Wright (Quantum of Solace) and Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) as two of the returning champions and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new master of the HG chessboard, adds some needed credibility to the series.

It's not that this money-printing endeavor needs them to sell to the already initiated; they lend some new attraction to those who remain unbowed by the first movie's wave of popularity.

And, for that matter, swapping the first episode's director, Gary Ross, for Francis Lawrence was a good move. Lawrence, who is much more familiar with big scale, glossy entertainment having directed I Am Legend (the Will Smith edition) and Constantine (starring Keanu Reeves), handles the scope well and gives reason to be optimistic about the third and final chapter, Mockingjay. Following the money-grabbing lead of Twilight and Harry Potter, Mockingjay will also be a two-parter.

Messiah Complex

So. Catching Fire is technically well made. But it still is an experience best appreciated by those who are already fans of the material. Like most things Star Trek, there's a sense of being on the outside and looking in, trying to justify the hype that included live streaming coverage of a red carpet premiere in Los Angeles and the breathless reading of fan tweets during the stars' arrivals. Gosh. Those were some Tweets of resounding substance. Tweets like, "I wish Jennifer Lawrence was my best friend."

Okay. So The Hunger Games pulled in a fan base looking for the next Twilight, the next Star Trek, the next what-have-you franchise, that ugly buzz term that serves up Hollywood mega-hits like drive-thru hamburgers.

Here's the reality check from one of those outsiders still scratching his head, wondering why this series filled with colorfully-dressed characters with funky names like Effie Trinket, Peeta Mellark and Claudius Templesmith has captured so much of the money, time and energy of those around him: the characters aren't that interesting and the storyline isn't all that fascinating.

Instead, the series is weighed down by one of the most passionless love triangles ever committed to film and obvious efforts to cast Katniss as a Christ-like Messiah figure, putting her right up there with the Man of Steel with blatant visual cues as when Katniss' unconscious body is hoisted out of the dome with her arms stretched out in a crucifixion-like pose.

Sorry. Not buying it. This writer is all about strong leading ladies - Lara Croft and Marion Ravenwood to name two - but Katniss Everdeen still isn't ready to join their posse.

• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.

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