A step backwards from The Hunger Games, itself no masterpiece, follow-up Catching Fire addresses several issues that marred its predecessor while revealing greater problems of its own. In its favor, the ongoing rebellion of teenager Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) against the oppressive government of Panem features special effects a notch better, less shaky camerawork, and a more vivid sense of institutional evil. Beyond that, fans of the first installment will likely perceive an amplified adventure, but for those unimpressed by Games director Gary Ross’ efforts, the initial film proves to have dug the series such a deep hole that these actors playing these characters in this PG-13 setting only holds so much appeal. Unless a director comes along who’s willing to give the story the R-rating it demands, the saga will continue to be a muted, frustrating run of films.
Based on Catching Fire, that requisite director is not Francis Lawrence, who’s behind the camera here and in the forthcoming two-part finale Mockingjay. Not helping matters is the talented writing team of Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours; Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine; Toy Story 3), unable to make this material worthwhile lest they risk alienating young viewers who perhaps aren’t ready for a televised teenage fight-to-the-death story, regardless of its purported accessibility. Hewing close to Suzanne Collins’ source novel, this filmmaking unit lulls viewers into a daze as Katniss and her co-champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) tour Panem’s 12 districts, thanking the families of those who died so that they might win. Leaning heavily on dry exposition, much of it via threats from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and strategic responses by mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), it’s revealed that the resistance the pair helped inspire is on the rise and that they stand to suffer as a result. Subsequent sights of restless citizens holding up three fingers and/or whistling the four-note mockingjay refrain are meant to be stirring, yet fall flat each time in this humdrum environment.
To the film’s credit, the federal retaliation that the 75th Hunger Games will reap solely from past winners is a terrifying one, and means that Katniss and either Peeta or Haymitch will be selected from District 12. Deep into the snoozy drama of the young champions faking their romance for their adoring fans, the filmmakers promptly botch the news of what’s essentially a death sentence, landing it with the impact of an empty pillowcase. The next step for Catching Fire is to go through the motions of The Hunger Games, recycling the skills exhibition, chariot ride, and interview with TV personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) with negligible new elements. Throughout this tremendously dull 90-minute stretch, it’s tiresome to watch these actors attempt to convey deep emotion with the largely wooden line-reading and occasional dose of overacting (especially by Lawrence) that comprises their skill set, deflating what should be a dire situation.
The Games themselves aren’t much better. The concept of yet another iteration is akin to having every Harry Potter film center on the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and even with new faces and fresh threats, it’s all too familiar. Action inside the arena proceeds at an inconsistent pace and any sense of character is fleeting. Gumming up the works is the cocky Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), protector of his senior citizen and unexplainably mute mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen). The scenario also wastes Jeffrey Wright as inventor Beetee while his District 3 counterpart Wiress (Amanda Plummer) is reduced to saying “tick tock” on repeat. The only one remotely interesting is Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason, a brash Tribute from District 7 with much ill will for the Capitol. No, she’s not given much interesting to do either, but her possession of a personality lets her stand out.
Further diluting the competition is zero sense of the Games’ reach. Crucial to their horror is that citizens are forced to tune in, resulting in viewers either ravenous for death or repulsed by the carnage onscreen. The Hunger Games had a few scattered shots of the event’s broadcast, but in Catching Fire it appears that only President Snow, new Gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (a squandered Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the Gamesmaker’s team are watching. For viewers of the film, at least, the deaths are more realistic this go-round instead of Tributes dying of apparent seizures induced by cinematographers with weak wrists, but if no one else is there to see such violence, what’s the point? That’s the key question for the series at large, and after one of the clunkier set-ups for a sequel in some time, there’s almost certainly more of the same on the way.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.