Warning: the following review contains plot spoilers
Regular readers will know that I’m not a reader of YA literature and I’m also not overly interested in the film adaptations of YA novels. Hell, it took me over twelve years to even see a Harry Potter movie. Still, when the film version of The Hunger Games came out last year I did kind of get caught up in the hype and went ahead and saw the film simply to better understand what the buzz was all about. I didn’t end up loving the film, but it was better than I thought it would be. It had a couple elements I really liked (namely Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, some of the political allegories, the dystopic world it was set in), and a couple elements I didn’t care for at all (namely the action, the pacing, and some of its questionable production values). Most of the things I disliked were things that could easily be smoothed over in future sequels, so I was pretty hopeful that what I’d seen could serve as the foundation for a franchise that would be better than its first installment. The decision to replace the first film’s director with Francis Lawrence, a man who is pretty good at building worlds and helming action scenes, made me all the more excited to see where the series would go.
And yet, once the film was finally released I actually wan’t all that excited to go. The first film had come out in early March, a week that is generally devoid of competition, and that played a big role in my decision to begrudgingly give the film a shot a couple weeks after it had opened. This time around, Lionsgate opted to open the film in the middle of November, a time when there are probably a million other things I could be seeing. As such I decided that I’d have to skip it. I even stuck to that decision for five weeks, but then almost on a whim I decided that this was a little too big of a film to ignore, especially when everything I’d heard suggested that it was indeed an improvement over the original. Besides, I needed a blockbuster to cleanse the palate in-between prestige films, so I took the plunge. And after having seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I’ve got to say, I kind of wish I’d stuck with my guns and skipped it because it is not only not an improvement over its predecessor but it’s a substantial step backwards.
Set one year after the events of the last film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in her home district and having made a new enemy in the form of President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), who is angry that her conduct in the games last year seems to have fanned the flames of rebellion within the districts. His hands are tied though because the people of the capital did not recognize the rebellion in her behavior and have become obsessed with the supposed romance between her and her Hunger Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). To deal with this, Snow and the new gamekeeper (Phillip Seymore Hoffman) devise a plan to turn the next year’s Hunger Games into a sort of tournament of champions as a means of forcing Katniss back into the arena, where she’ll presumably be forced to do some less than popular things and then be killed in the process.
In many ways The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels less like the second part of a larger story and more like a simple sequel. As in, the kind of sequels that used to get hastily thrown together to cash in on a film’s success back in the day when film franchises weren’t carefully planned out from the start. Like those old-school sequels the idea seems to be less “lets further explore this world” and more “let’s take the formula from the old film and make it bigger.” That’s going to be the backbone of my case against this film: it feels like a complete rehash. Like the first film, it starts with Katniss in her district, then moves on to the capital where she needs to train and also solicit sponsors, and finally its second half is a fight to the death in the Hunger Games arena. As such it retains a lot of the same flaws that hurt the original film like the fact that it wastes way too much time in the capital before getting to the arena or the fact that it’s populated with garish costumes that have entire scenes dedicated to showcasing.
Whenever the film does deviate from the formula though, it’s almost always for the worse. For instance, the decision to have the games be populated by former players (many of whom are adults) pretty thoroughly robs the high concept of a lot of its disturbing power. These “tributes” seem less like scared masses being forced into a bad situation and more like the freakish “stalkers” who hunted down Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man. When these guys get killed in the game it feels less like the result of a brutal society and more like a bunch of bad guys simply getting killed off. In fact, for the most part, the environment seems to be a much bigger threat to Katniss and her allies in this Hunger Games than any of her actual opponents.
I also thought that the character motivations in this installment were all over the place. For example, early in the film the Peeta character is given an opportunity to not participate in the games, but chooses to anyway in order to spare the Haymitch Abernathy from having to compete. Why? Haymitch is an old drunk, what in the world would make Peeta want to sacrifice his own safety in order to save him? I suppose it could have been that Peeta was part of the conspiracy that is revealed in the film’s final moments (more on that later), even then he should have had some kind of explanation for this sudden nobility because it sure doesn’t fit with the narrative that he and Katniss are trying to sell to the wider population of this world. And speaking of people who are inexplicably trying to save other people who they seemed to previously express no affection for, why is Katniss so hell bent on saving Peeta? She spends most of the movie’s first third expressing that she’s just not that into him and that their supposed romance is just an act, but then at about the halfway point she starts to seem downright devoted to him and starts insisting over and over again that he “needs” to survive the games. This is odd firstly because, well, it kind of makes him look like a punk bitch, and secondly because she’s the one who is a symbol of resistance in this world and is clearly more important to the world than he is.
As for that twist ending… I fucking hate it. Firstly I think it’s illogical. That the conspirators keep the whole thing a secret from Katniss is itself ridiculous and kind of diminishes Katniss as this resourceful hero. Also, their whole plan seems to be entirely predicated on Katniss making a spur of the moment decision without any kind of prodding. I have no idea how they knew that that was going to happen, especially when one considers that that thing that she does which makes the big escape is kind of ridiculous. Arrows can’t generally be shot that high, and if that dome is going to completely shatter over that… it’s just silly. It’s also abrupt. It felt like the games were only barely afoot when I looked at my watch and saw that the movie was almost over. I thought to myself “how are they going to wrap all this up in so short a time.” Needless to say, I was not impressed when the answer was more or less “they aren’t.” Instead they do this convoluted and rushed plot twist that is conveyed largely through this brief dialogue scene at the end which feels more like a complete cliffhanger than like a portent for what’s to come. At least end on some kind of shot of the people marching in the street or something, don’t just cut from Katniss crying like a baby over her non-boyfriend to some cheesy looking logo.
I will give new director Francis Lawrence credit for one thing: he does seem to have a slightly better grasp on how to film an action scene than Gary Ross did. He also seems to have been given a slightly higher budget to work with, so the film generally does look a little better than the last one, but the improvement isn’t necessarily by leaps and bounds by any means. If anything it kind of makes me think I was too hard on Ross, at least he seemed to have a better grasp of how to pace his time in the Hunger Games arena. In fact, I’d say that this movie generally gave me a better appreciation of that first film insomuch as it showed how everything about that movie could have potentially been done worse. Even Jennifer Lawrence seems to be phoning it in here so that she can focus her energies on her David O. Russell projects. I remember liking her a lot in the last film, but her performance here seems to be off, there are definitely some rather brutal line readings here that she seems to botch.
More than anything, this movie’s biggest sin is that it just never seems to justify its own existence. Most of the pleasure I derived from the first film came from being introduced to this crazy fantasy world. Here we learn very little new about that world and instead just see all the stuff we saw in the first film all over again. What’s more, the story itself just seems to be treading water and setting things up for the third film, which is presumably where all the real action is going to be. Hell, pretty much everything that’s really interesting about this installment seems to be happening off screen. I would have much rather seen the rebellion being built out in the districts or seen the conspirators come up with their elaborate plan to help said rebellion than spend the whole installment watching Katniss lackadaisically replay her last adventure while being stuck in the dark about all the good stuff. All in all, I think this movie is kind of a disaster. I was about as let down by it as one could possibly be by a film that one waited five weeks to bother going to.
*1/2 out of Four