The Hunger Games: Catching Fire presents a kind of conundrum for me. There’s no doubt that I mostly liked it a lot more than the first one. It’s better written and certainly far better directed. Yet I gave the first picture a mild, three-and-a-half-star recommendation — and I can’t bring myself to get any more extravagant with this. Despite a central problem that was expressed by one of the characters in the course of the film, and a general tendency toward pomposity, the first two-thirds of Catching Fire is truly compelling. Unfortunately, that last third is something else altogether. Once the movie gets to the actual “game,” it feels like it’s on auto-pilot. It’s like sitting through that second Quidditch match in the Harry Potter films, which is to say, it’s kind of a drag. Even a brace of CGI-simians don’t really liven it up. (And God help you as far as understanding parts of it if you didn’t see the first movie.) I will concede that the twist at the very end promises a more intriguing sequel, but it’s not enough to undo the tedium of the game — at least for me.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that these movies aren’t startling in using this kind of framework and parallel dystopian world to make a greater point. Face it, folks, this is not a unique case of a pop-culture movie having a deeper agenda — though you might think so if you read some of the gush. That said, the first sections of Catching Fire are very well done in building the sense of oppression. (It really needed an R rating, but within that self-imposed, box-office concession limitation, it works.) Most of the characters are better drawn this time (of course, they still have all those dopey names) and a lot of the dialogue is surprisingly sharp (as long as hunky lunkhead Liam Hemsworth doesn’t say anything). Some of the scenes are quite striking. (Thank you, whoever ditched shaky-cam Gary Ross for the more professionally inclined director, Francis Lawrence.) The growing unsettled nature of the populace as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (John Hutcherson) undertake their “victory tour” is beautifully structured. The sequence in the capitol where Katniss dances with game designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is not only nicely staged, but their dialogue and its delivery is spot-on.
However, it’s also in this part of the film that there’s an exchange between Katniss and her (and Peeta’s) trainer, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), in which he tells her that she could never be worthy of Peeta’s love for her. Right then, something that had been niggling at me through both films came into focus — he’s right. There’s just not much to the Katniss character. I’m sure I’ve just committed some kind of heresy with that statement, but really, without Jennifer Lawrence in the role, Katniss would be pretty unbearable. Even with her, she’s still incredibly oblivious to just about everything. She’s largely self-centered — at least self-absorbed — and always greets the fallout from anything she does with utter astonishment. Even when she has a crise de conscience about Peeta, she remains blissfully unaware of what’s going on around her. She didn’t realize that her mockingjay-gown transformation would play badly for the safety of its creator, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz)? Seriously?
Overall, though, the film has much to recommend it. The character portrayals are often brilliant. Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are far better — and deeper — here than they were in the first film. Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant in a tricky role. Stanley Tucci — with that ghastly orange “tan” and blazingly white teeth, like one of those vapid E! Entertainment News creatures — is the perfect incarnation of the smug TV host with smarmy familiarity and endless fake gushing. Not only that, but he manages to suggest an undercurrent of fear of falling out-of-favor with the ever-fickle powers that be. This is the sort of thing that raises the film a notch more than its rather facile depths. Too bad that the most of the last act is so much a retread of the first movie. Hopefully, the sequels will get around that. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.