The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Movie Information

The Story: Sequel to The Hunger Games. The Lowdown: Mostly an improvement on the first film — until it gets to the action centerpiece of the game, whereupon it not only spins the same wheels, but relies too heavily on the assumption that you have seen the first movie.
Genre: Futuristic Action Thriller
Director: Francis Lawrence (Constantine)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rated: PG-13

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.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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21 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

  1. luluthebeast

    Considering finances being what they are, and the fact that I would like to see this, it will have to wait for cable.

  2. Dionysis

    I guess this will end up being Philip Seymore Hoffman’s last role. What a loss.

  3. bsummers

    “What a loss.”

    What a loss indeed.

    I sat behind Hoffman at the Fine Arts theater when he was in town to film Patch Adams. I think at the time I only knew him from Twister and Boogie Nights, but I was already a fan. He was alone, so I asked my date if we should invite him over to Barleys for a beer, but I couldn’t bring myself to bug him.

    Ah well.

  4. Me

    Dionysis, there is still a tv show and two films, one directed by Mad Men’s John Slattery and the other by Anton Corbijn, and two more Hunger Games films. Technically according to his imdb a Hunger Games film will be his last role though.

    • bsummers

      I’ve been trying to remember – I emailed my date from that night, but haven’t heard back. I may have to see a list of films the Fine Arts screened in ’98. Have any idea if such a list exists?

    • bsummers

      Likely suspects are Pecker, Gods and Monsters, Smoke Signals, American History X or Waking Ned Devine. I know I saw those in the theater when they came out that year, but I would just be guessing which it was. Perhaps the woman I was with will remember…

  5. Big Al

    “..I may have to see a list of films the Fine Arts screened in ’98. Have any idea if such a list exists?”

    Yes. Go the bottom right of the Fine Arts Theater website and click on the little green box that says ‘Films played at the Fine Arts Theater since opening in 1996’.

    It seems that many of our movies stars with reputations for intensity, especially the ones who favor “method” acting, cannot function without pharmaceutical assistance. Heath Ledger comes immediately to mind.

    It is ironic that Hoffman could not cope as he was so willing to parody actors who suffered from such intensity, as well as inflated self-importance, in “Along Came Polly”. I would have thought that such self-awareness (of acting in general, if not his own personal issues) would have served him well in avoiding such dependency.

    I will miss him.

  6. Xanadon't

    Well Patch Adams premiered in October, so I imagine the filming would’ve taken place in spring or early summer. Looking at the release dates for the film listed above, I think you can likely rule out all of them with the possible exception of Smoke Signals.

    Did the Fine Arts theater happen to screen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and did you go? Just a guess, of course.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I know Gods and Monsters was playing at the Fine Arts when I made my first pilgrimmage to Asheville in spring 1999.

  8. bsummers

    According to my friend, the only one that she recalls seeing with me was Waking Ned Devine, so if that falls outside the time Hoffman would have been here, I’m stumped. Sorry.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Technically according to his imdb a Hunger Games film will be his last role though.

    This or Raul Julia in Street Fighter — which is the more embarassing?

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