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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Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has a really bad rep and with good reason: Five years ago convicted killer Riddick escaped the galaxy's law enforcement during a botched interplanetary prison transfer and has been on the lam ever since. As The Chronicles of Riddick picks up our antagonist finds his relative freedom has been compromised when mercenaries out for the $1 million bounty on his head discover his location and hunt him down. Riddick escapes their clutches steals their ship and sets off for Planet Helion to find Imam (Keith David) the Muslim cleric he rescued in Pitch Black and the only person who could have squealed his location to authorities. But while Riddick's hunch about Imam are correct the cleric has a reason for luring the mammoth murderer out of hiding: Helion is falling to unholy armies of Necromongers--warriors who conquer by force in the vein of Star Trek's Borg. Of course Riddick doesn't give a damn about the Helions or their plight--until he gets wind that the Necromogers want to kill him because of an old prophecy that foresees their end at Riddick's hands. Like it or not Riddick is left with no other choice but to battle the Necromongers.
The character of Riddick is unquestionably what made Pitch Black one of the most sequel-worthy sci-fi films in years. And Riddick would not have been one of sci-fi's most intoxicating characters if it weren't for Diesel. Like his Dominic Toretto in the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious Riddick is a villain of few words but when he speaks his carefully chosen words have impact--even if the dialogue is at times overly theatrical. Riddick is the perfect antihero; a cold-blooded and indifferent being who somehow evokes more compassion than the film's so-called good guys. Joining Riddick are some recurring characters including David as Imam but Riddick benefits the most from the addition of some new characters particularly Colm Feore as Lord Marshal the Necromonger leader whose goal is to rid the universe of all human life. Feore channeling nuggets of Julius Caesar into his role makes for one of Riddick's most thrilling foes. Another prominent addition to the cast is Judi Dench who has a surprisingly small role as Aereon an Elemental captured by the Necromongers and used for her special powers including ESP.
Writer/director David Twohy took his horror pic Pitch Black which gained a cult following since it was released four years ago and managed to successfully turn it into an sci-fi actioner of epic proportions. Everything is grander here which is almost a given considering Twohy shot Pitch Black on a dime in Australia using colored filters. In Riddick the director distinguishes the film's different environments--the Necros' mothership Crematoria's cavernous prison and Helion--using warm to cool tones that are dazzling yet more subtle than its predecessor. The CGI effects get a little gamey at times but production designer Holger Gross' gargantuan sets are impressive and help craft Twohy's otherworldly vision into a plausible one. And although Twohy jumps genres from Pitch Black to its sequel his storyline evolves logically from the original premise. But while moviegoers unfamiliar with Pitch Black will be able to follow the story easily enough they may have a difficult time grasping what makes Riddick such a big deal; the film explains the legend but never fully captures its quintessence. This could hurt Riddick's chances to broaden its Pitch Black fan base.