It’s been nearly a year since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) captured the hearts of the people of Panem by winning the 74th Hunger Games in extremely unorthodox fashion. Where there should have only been a single victor the two illusory lovebirds stood together as champions in defiance of both expectations and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Fearing that seeds of rebellion are breaking through the hard earth outside of the Capitol, Snow carts the two from district to district pimping their celebrity in the hopes that it will distract the people from their day to day drudgery.
Instead, the trip spurs more unrest and unruliness leading Snow to make a change for the upcoming 75th Games. In direct conflict with the life of wealth and peace their previous victory had earned them, two past winners from each district, one male and one female, will once again be chosen as tributes to fight until only one remains. Katniss and Peeta are forced to continue the charade that is their love affair as they reunite with their Capitol entourage and attempt to make allies amid the roster of past champions and imminent threats. The games are still about life and death, but this time it’s the heart of the rebellion that the pair are hoping to keep thumping in addition to their own.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second film in what has quickly become one of the biggest YA franchises yet, and while it features many of the trappings of the category (including a love triangle and the idea that even the plainest girl can actually be uniquely special) the film lightly explores some unexpected themes and emotional depth as well. That in itself gives the movie a rare victory, but it’s barely enough to raise it above its predecessor in quality. While it improves dramatically upon the first film’s weaknesses it takes a big step backward in its promise and CGI-filled but otherwise empty third act.
There are strengths and weaknesses throughout, but it’s no stretch to say the success of the film (and series) starts and ends at Lawrence’s presumably adorable feet. Katniss is a strong character featuring nuances and layers that go well beyond not only typical YA fare but blockbuster franchise fare too, but it’s Lawrence who breathes three dimensional life into her. Like an experiment escaped from an angelic laboratory, she’s repeatedly shown herself to be all things to all people, and she brings that sense of self into this sci-fi landscape in effect humanizing the proceedings as much as the script could ever hope to do.
That’s not to imply that writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn (Michael Arndt’s pen name for touch-up work apparently) are slacking in the script department. On the contrary, the build-up to the action constitutes not only an improvement over the previous film but some of the finest setup and character work in a blockbuster this year. The romantic tension between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is explored with angst and legitimacy, and the contrast between the Capitol’s PG-13 debauchery and the excitably implied bloodbaths of the games is once again palpable. You don’t need to reach too far to find correlations to the real media landscape.
Director Francis Lawrence takes the reins from Gary Ross, and while he proves himself capable overall there are some noticeably surprising results in what should have been his wheelhouse. Unlike the first film’s 50/50 split between setup and game time, Catching Fire expends more effort stoking the story and building its characters than it does on the actual game. His aquatic elephant-drama aside, Francis Lawrence is best known for big, action/effects-oriented spectacle (I Am Legend, Constantine), but here that’s the weakest element of the film.
When the first film dropped Katniss and viewers into the game the initial minutes were an intense and brutal experience as the threat of death at the hands of the other players felt immediate and real. As the game wore on, the anxiety and fear returned again and again in sequences that left breaths held and pulses racing. None of that is present here. The action is tightly cropped, the human on human violence is left almost entirely offscreen, and the vast majority of threats come in the form of CGI creations. Almost the entirety of the third act is underwhelming, and we’re left only with plot machinations in service of the next two films. Worse, while the first film’s games offered at least one truly affecting death not a single passing here feels even remotely disturbing or sad.
As already mentioned this is Jennifer Lawrence’s show, but others in the cast hold their own as well. Returning for another go around are Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci (whose teeth arrive onscreen five minutes before he does), and they’re both as entertaining as you’d expect, but its three newcomers who make the strongest mark. Philip Seymour Hoffman drops by as the devious new game-maker, Plutarch Heavensbee, and Sam Claflin does strong work in a supporting role that finds heart and mystery in what at first appears to be nothing more than an egotistical prick. It’s Jena Malone though who steals everyone’s thunder in a wildly charismatic turn the likes of which she’s deserved for years now.
As the middle film in a trilogy, albeit a four-film one, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire mostly succeeds where it counts. The story and stakes have grown, and the characters are given time to become more tangible and layered. The best middle or bridge films can still stand on their own though, and its there where this one fails. Its third act is in such a hurry to set the stage for what’s to come that it neglects what’s already there. Leaving viewers hungry for more is fine, but taking the food out of their mouth mid-chew is just mean.
The Upside: Jennifer Lawrence and Stanley Tucci; fantastic setup and character work in first two acts; second best f-bomb of the year
The Downside: Game section mistakes CGI threats as suspenseful/engaging and neglects the story’s central drama of people forced to kill; Lenny Kravitz
On the Side: Both Taylor Kitsch and Garrett Hedlund were considered for the role of Finnick Odair. Thankfully the filmmakers realized it was time to give up trying to turn either man into a real star.