While I’m aware that I’ll probably get hate mail from all of my adoring readers I still have to say it: Catching Fire is basically a carbon copy of the original Hunger Games. The film adaption of the second book from Suzanne Collin’s derivative blockbuster series is certainly a movie for our times, with its mono-chromaticism, gruelling themes and surprisingly vicious (for its banal PG-13 rating) violence. It’s robustly directed by Francis Lawerence (the man behind that elephant movie) and features a powerfully dramatic performance by the luminous Jennifer Lawerence (who is seemingly incapable of being unconvincing in anything). Still, despite its technical craftmanship the film still seems stagnant, circular, its basic storyline becoming unfortunately almost a point-by-point retread of much of the original film.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up unsurprisingly soon after the dramatic conclusion of the original story, where Lawerence’s Katniss Everdeen and boy toy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) denied the fundamental law of the Hunger Games: Only one can survive. By obstinately refusing to kill each other these two District 12’ers find themselves under the paranoid eye and bushy beard of the wizened Donald Sutherland (aka President Snow). Snow sees the seeds of rebellion being implanted in the very unfertile looking ground of the districts, which he credits to Katniss’s recalcitrant behavior. In order to correct this Snow sets in motion what is probably one of the most politically negligent acts this side of the recent government shutdown: He decides to haul all of the former victors back into, you guessed it, another Hunger Games, which he gleefully refers to as a “Quarter Quell.”
This whole premise of yet another Hunger Games, while allowing for the film to express a few nice sentiments about the meaning of hope and power, deflates much of the second film’s thematic weight. This is evidenced by Katniss who, while maybe not fully ready to engage in the inevitable bloodbaths which usually accompany revolutions, has already had her political consciousness awoken by the end of the first film. This redundancy, taken together with the film’s twist ending, prompts one to seriously question the entire edifice of the production, or relegate this second entry to the movie franchise as mere filler.
Yet, even if one chooses to interpret the film this way and even if one finds the various implausibilities behind the story’s surprise ending jarring, Catching Fire is still far from a proverbial crapshoot. Much of this comes down to the actors; the cast list is absolutely inundated by a bevy of film sluggers. As mentioned before Lawerence is wonderful in her role. She dominates the film, evoking Katniss’s internal turmoil in a nuanced and graceful way. That being said this isn’t a film which spares on the acting fireworks; Lawerence is still able to let the tears rain and when they do it is quite affecting. Hutcherson, who was tasked during the first film with being quite the annoying and nebbish little creep, fares much better this time around. The actor and the character are both more confident and his selflessness is thankfully far from grating.
The supporting cast is split between young, up-and-comers and old, venerable pros. It is expansive, with so many recognizable mugs that it is difficult to list them all here. Miley Cyrus’s former boo, proverbial beefcake Liam Hemsworth reappears, playing feckless miner Gale, as does the wily drunkard Haymitch, played by the always reliable Woody Harrelson. Rounding out the returning cast are Sutherland as Snow, and Elizabeth Banks as the heavily painted Effie Trinket who. Her work , along with Stanley Tucci as the boisterous Caesar, provides this dour picture with some much-needed exuberance.
New faces include the husky Sam Clafin, who portrays the sardonic dreamboat Finnick, Jenna Malone, as the vengeful, uninhibited Johanna, and even Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s always a pleasure to watch Hoffman, even though his performance is nowhere near as powerful as his more audible, red-faced efforts, such as his spit-spraying mattress salesman from Punch Drunk Love (“Did you just tell me to go fuck myself? That wasn’t good! You’re dead!”). Still, there are few people who can play creepy or sleazy better than Hoffman and it’s fun to see him acting with Sutherland.
On a thematic level the tone of the film is even darker than the original. It contains scenes of violence and a general air of powerlessness that eclipses Gary Ross’s grim original. That being said the violence contained in the story is restrained, filtered through a very narrow lens. For a film which is ostensibly profiling the inception of a national rebellion it seems remarkably unconcerned with actually showing the citizens of Panem. We have very little idea what steps they are taking to ensure the development of their rebellion or how they are beginning to formulate an alternative form of leadership. While I would like to give the film a pass on this issue, and while one could argue that the rebellion during Catching Fire is in its infancy, I maintain that this is part of the problem. The film’s fixation on yet another Hunger Games is profoundly detrimental.
Maybe it’s because the games in both films are essentially interchangeable. Instead of fireballs this time around there is a poisonous cloud of gas, instead of being menaced by dogs the gang is menaced by monkeys. Through this repetition comparisons between Francis Lawerence and his predecessor become inevitable. My personal opinion is that he does not match the sturdy hand of Gary Ross during these scenes. While his direction is at times quite effective, such as during the riveting opening sprint to the weapon area, he is also at fault for giving his characters one too many moments of turmoil. This is most blatant when Kandiss experiences something straight out of Birdemic. The action in this second Hunger Games arena slows to a crawl at certain points. It tests not only the audience’s patience but its ability to follow the participants different alliances, which seem to be in a perpetual state of flux.
This is a shame too because you can really see the quality of the aesthetics in these battle arena sequences. The impossible lushness of the tropical setting (these scenes were shot in Hawaii) explodes off the screen, and the special effects involved with the production are miles ahead of the original film, which is something really noticeable when comparing the two films chariot scenes. Honestly, do you remember how bad those scenes looked in Gary Ross’s film; it was comical!
However, in the end it doesn’t matter how long we bat around the merits and demerits of the film. A wise golden robot named C-3PO once said, with an air of exhausted resignation, “Here we go again.” In a way this line encapsulates what is wrong not only with this second entry to the Hunger Games franchise, but with the modern-day conception of a blockbuster series. What has developed, especially over the past few years, is the perennial elongation of franchises, needlessly, purely in the pursuit of higher profits. While this is certainly a repugnant technique you do have admire the brilliance of the suits that control these properties. For example, look at the fiscal pull of the last two Harry Potter films – you know, the adaptation of the seventh book which they split into two films. Worldwide Part I grossed over 950 million dollars, while Part II grossed over 1.3 billion. What could have been an outrageous smash hit turned into a fucking killing.
Now, I’m quite aware that the comparison isn’t quite valid. Catching Fire is validated by its origin as a book, right? Nope, wrong. Because the basic idea which fuels my petulant stance regarding irrelevant franchise films still holds up. Catching Fire doesn’t justify its existence, despite the accomplishment that’s more than evident in many of the film’s aesthetic elements. It’s hard not to hear 3PO’s voice ring in your ears when you watch these characters move through the exact same locations and do roughly the exact same things as before: district, Elizabeth Banks, reaping, train, capitol, ball, training, hunger games – yawn! It feels like a simple filler, a bridge so to speak, from the original film to its inevitable final entry: Mockingjay. Oh, wait, I guess they’re going to draw this out further, needlessly extend this story longer. As many of you know Mockingjay is being split into several films. Perhaps the story is so complex the films will sustain themselves, unlike New Line’s latest foray into Middle Earth. I doubt it though. When it comes to franchise films the odds are rarely in our favor.