Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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It's been four long years since J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek with an origin story for the ages: how Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 first came together. Now if you're a diehard Trekker who's watched the movie multiple times you probably need no catching up for Abrams' sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, opening May 17. For you non-nerds, though, you may need a refresher course. Here are 8 things you need to know before you see Star Trek Into Darkness.
1. Spock And Uhura Are In A Relationship
One of the most surprising things about the 2009 Star Trek was how we learned that Spock's (Zachary Quinto) green blood runs hot for communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana). That was certainly never a part of The Original Series or its spin-off films.
That's because Abrams didn't just make a prequel with his Star Trek, he and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman introduced a time-travel element where a disgruntled Romulan freighter captain named Nero traveled back in time to avenge himself on Spock for allowing his homeworld of Romulus to be destroyed in a supernova.
That simple act of time-travel created a whole new timeline, in which many things have happened that never happened to our characters on The Original Series. Because Nero traveled back to the early 23rd century, Kirk's father, George, was killed; the Federation made face-to-face contact with Romulans some thirty years earlier than in the original timeline; and Spock and Uhura ended up playing tonsil-hockey.
Fans now refer to the original timeline of The Original Series and its subsequent films as "The Prime Timeline." That's where Nero never traveled back in time, George Kirk wasn't killed, the Federation and the Romulans didn't meet face to face until "Balance of Terror," and Uhura and Spock were colleagues but never lovers. However, elements of the new timeline, including Spock and Uhura's sparks, are arguably there in subtler ways in the Prime Timeline.
In the Original Series episode "Charlie X," there is some definite sexual tension between Leonard Nimoy's Spock and Nichelle Nichols' Uhura as he plays the lyre and she sings a song about "the handsome man who looks like Satan" — meaning him. Uhura bats her lashes and sends him about every come-hither glance imaginable during their duet, and Spock even smiles! So basically, the concept of the new timeline is that we're seeing the things, such as Spock and Uhura's relationship, that could have happened given these few tweaks to history. When Nero goes back in time and changes history, Spock and Uhura go from having a charged musical recital to a full-blown relationship.
2. The Prime Directive
This wasn't such a big deal in the first movie, but it's critical to keep in mind for Star Trek Into Darkness. Though Starfleet is a military organization, it's one geared toward exploration, discovery, and diplomacy more than warfare. The central guiding principal of Starfleet when encountering other lifeforms is the Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet must not interfere in the natural evolution of alien races that are less technologically advanced. Technically, that means a Federation captain and his crew shouldn't even do anything to alleviate the suffering of aliens less developed.
It's a total hands-off, non-interference policy, and it's one that we essentially borrowed from the Vulcans. Our pointy-eared friends only made first contact with humans after we developed warp drive in the year 2063. Only then were we developed enough to be aware of the existence of alien races and embark upon a path toward becoming a part of the interstellar community...or so the Vulcans though. Which is too bad, because we really could have used their help during the dire early part of the 21st century when humanity was engulfed in World War III. (Yeah, the next few decades are really gonna suck.) But the Vulcans felt that not interfering in our natural evolution was more important than alleviating our tremendous hardship. Each race has to grow up by itself. This is very important to the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness.
3. Vulcan Was Destroyed
The most pivotal change to the timeline with Nero's temporal incursion was, of course, the destruction of Vulcan. Nero wanted revenge against Spock for the destruction of Romulus and he got that satisfaction by destroying Spock's world in kind. This alone changes the entire course of Federation history. And it sets up a new conflict within the ranks of Starfleet.
We already said that it was a military organization devoted more to exploration and diplomacy than war. After Vulcan, a founding world of the Federation, is destroyed, you better believe that there are those in Starfleet who start to question their mission, who start to think that achieving a security state is more important than seeking out new life forms and new civilizations.
4. Kirk's Command Was Just a Battlefield Promotion
Kirk only got the Captain's Chair in 2009's Star Trek because Spock had to be relieved after being emotionally compromised following the destruction of his homeworld. And Spock only got the Enterprise after Nero kidnapped the ship's real captain, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).
Basically, that meant the Enterprise was Christopher Pike's to have back whenever he wanted...except Pike was promoted to admiral, meaning he'd most likely assume a desk job rather than go hopping about the cosmos. That isn't a given, though. William Shatner's Kirk basically pulls a Leno in Star Trek: The Motion Picture by giving up the Enterprise to become an admiral, then wanting to assume command of it again, putting its new captain, Stephen Collins' Will Decker, out of a job. Something similar happens in Star Trek Into Darkness.
5. Section 31
This is something that writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman obviously just threw in for the diehard fans. It's revealed in a throwaway line of dialogue in Star Trek Into Darkness that one of the major characters is a member of Section 31, a super-secret intel organization within the Federation that responds to threats against the Federation while being completely off-the-grid. Meaning: no accountability.
Section 31 first appeared in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when the organization was led by Sloan (Iron Man 3's William Sadler). On that show, we saw that Section 31 had no qualms about doing things to protect the Federation that completely trampled its values. They were okay with torture, with biological warfare, and, interestingly enough, they were very keen to recruit someone who had been genetically-engineered to have a "superior" intellect and physical abilities. In that case, the recruit was Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig).
Now we realize that Deep Space Nine is set in the 24th century, but 200 years earlier, during the events of the 22nd-century-set Star Trek: Enterprise Section 31 was puttering around even then. You don't need to know anything about Section 31 to appreciate Star Trek Into Darkness, but that clandestine organization is pretty much the embodiment of the war for the Federation's soul and whether Starfleet will indeed "boldly go where no man has gone before" or merely retrench behind their own borders and build up their defenses.
6. Transwarp Beaming
This is one thing that only appears in Abrams' alternate timeline. Apparently, Nero's incursion set in motion events that would inspire Simon Pegg's Scotty to invent something James Doohan's Scotty never thought of: the ability to beam people and objects long-distance, from planet to planet or solar system to solar system.
It's technology called "transwarp beaming" and theoretically it means you could transport instantly from Earth to, say, Andoria, a planet in a completely different solar system. Very handy if you're a criminal on the run, like Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison. By our reckoning, this technology had only become viable in the original timeline by the late 24th century (as seen in Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Nemesis) and even then required the person transporting to wear a homing beacon.
7. The Klingons
The Klingons are, now and forever, humanity's prime antagonists in Star Trek. They are the embodiment of the bloodlust, the warmongering, the death-as-sport mentality that humanity once embraced but thankfully outgrew. All through The Original Series and its related movies, the Klingons are major villains when it comes to their dealings with James T. Kirk and crew.
These warriors are the fiery yang to the Romulans' icy, calculating yin. But then something amazing happened. In the 24th century, a detente began to form between the Klingons and the Federation, eventually even an alliance, and shows like The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager tried to depict them as noble warriors rather than hot-headed killers.
That is not the way the Klingons are presented in Star Trek Into Darkness. Here they are bloodthirsty savages, because it's the 23rd century, which means it's basically the Wild West. They were affected by the altered timeline too. In fact, they captured Nero and held him prisoner for some years while they studied his freighter, the Narada. Alias' Victor Garber had been cast to play Nero's Klingon interrogator. The deleted scene of Garber in costume exists on the Star Trek DVD, but they were otherwise cast out of that movie. They are a big deal in Star Trek Into Darkness, though, and some within the Federation begin to feel that war with the Klingons is inevitable.
8. Carol Marcus
William Shatner's Capt. Kirk cuddled a lot of space babes in his day, but there's only one with whom he actually had a son: Carol Marcus. She was a scientist who specialized in biotechnology, and she'd one day help create the Genesis device that could terraform an entire world in a matter of hours — a device Ricardo Montalban's Khan Noonien Singh saw as a weapon to be exploited.
Before Kirk ever began his five-year voyage they had a relationship, and from that relationship emerged their son David. Kirk wanted to take to the stars, though, and Carol wanted to raise her son far away from danger, so they split up, and Kirk became an absentee dad. When he sees David all grown up in The Wrath of Khan, he basically is seeing him for the first time in decades. David, however, is a whiny shell of a man compared to his father. Here's hoping he's been erased from history altogether in the altered timeline.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
More: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’: Forget Khan — John Harrison is a Klingon How ‘DS9’ Boldly Became the Best, Most Influential ‘Trek’ Series Alice Eve Shares Her Favorite ‘Star Trek’ Episode Zoe Saldana Goes Topless for ‘Allure,’ Says She’s ‘Androgynous’
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.