The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The sequel to 2012’s “next Twilight” is turning out to be just the kind of follow up the moneymen wet themselves over (despite wholesale studio plundering of potential “next big things”, The Hunger Games is so far the only adaptation of a “Young Adult” series of novels to repeat the success of those mostly risible vampire pictures). The original’s positive word of mouth has snowballed into an even more sizeable hit (likely to end up second or third for the year). Having a literary pedigree doesn’t mean a sequel benefits from an author’s desire to advance plot and character, however. This is merely a bigger, more expensive retread of the first film. It distinguishes itself by featuring noticeably less handheld camera and perhaps slightly more engaging political intrigue, but any aspirations to strike out in a forward direction are kept firmly in check.
I enjoyed the first installment but I couldn’t swallow the conceit of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian, totalitarian world. I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence takes the reins from Gary Ross, and one of his aims was to show us more this regime and how it ticks. Unfortunately, expanding the canvas only makes the concept seem less likely. Lawrence ensures this installment looks more polished (eschewing Ross’ shakycam is a significant part of this) but it also seems more bloated (it isn’t; it’s only four minutes longer) and less affecting. There’s nothing here that has the impact of the violent melee when Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) arrives in the first Games. And the picture misses the contribution of Ross as co-writer of the screenplay. He is replaced by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (author Suzanne Collins nor Billy Ray, the other credited writers of the first movie, are absent) neither of whom have a history of subtlety. Accordingly, Catching Fire is awash with thick-eared or excruciatinly corny dialogue and sloppy, obvious sentiment. I'm glad the kids are wowing at an even vaguely pro-revolution picture but this one manages to be both hugely derivative and not especially sharp.
Catching Fire also takes an enormous amount of time to get going, but the grander glimpses into this world are mostly routine. The best element of the film’s first half is the for-the-crowds pretence at romance between the profoundly disaffected Katniss and Peeta (the rather drippy Josh Hutcherson), particularly as the love triangle itself (the other corner being Liam Hemsworth’s Gale) is resoundingly torpid. When feelings for Peeta are eventually rekindled, we struggle to understand why (even less obvious is how the desperately unskilled titch survives for more than five minutes in the arena). Katniss’ growing awareness of the brutality of the districts and the seeds of rebellion that are taking place is quite clumsy, unfortunately. The oppressed are very oppressed, the fascist peacekeepers are very fascist, and Katniss is very upset at what she sees. Repeatedly.
The build up to the 75th Games is expanded without being hugely engrossing; only the shallow showmanship really hits the mark, with Stanley Tucci’s returning Caesar, all perma-tan and whitened teeth, consistently stealing the the proceedings. It’s a shame this wit doesn’t extend to the surrounding material. Katniss’ shows of defiance are all very well, but we want to get on to the killing! Jennifer Lawrence is as reliable a centre as before, the glue that holds the film together. She brings a weight and emotional depth Catching Fire would otherwise lack. And an assortment of knitwear. But this time, for plot reasons, Katnip is obliged to come across as unobservant and lacking insight. And it’s one of those pictures that wears its process on its sleeve; you can be sure that the writers will always finds excuses to avoid our heroes doing anything really nasty; the series has a vicious premise but can only render it in a highly sanitised form.
When the games begin things pick up, and Lawrence makes the most of his (mostly night shoot) location filming. There are some decent ideas here (the dome) and some not so decent ones (angry mandrills) but I question the idea that 75 years of the Games could have gone by without there ever once being a contest between past winners (it’s the same issue the first film has; the idea of the Games going on for so long is designed to add substance to this society, but it actually diminishes the practicality of the concept).
Lawrence dutifully introduces all the challengers, but only those who eventually team up together make an impression. We remember being introduced to the woman with pointy teeth (it must smart if she gets her tongue in the way) but you’d be hard put to place her during the tournament proper. So the opponents remain mostly faceless; perhaps Lawrence has a “been there done that” attitude; it would certainly explain why the Games seem to be over before they’ve really started. But take out the Games and you remove Collins’ one arresting concept (flawed as it is). I don’t know how the third book is structured (however, I’m quite sure there’s a really good reason to turn it into two more movies…), but the end of this movie is closer to The Matrix Reloaded than The Empire Strikes Back.
The broad strokes of the plotting extend to the new contestants. We’re told that they are experienced killers, but why would they be any more experienced than Katniss and Peeta; they aren’t continually engaging with new enemies, are they? Some of them are more successfully established than others, just as some of the latest challenges are more inventive than others. The killer baboons are a bit shit, although it’s always fun to see wholesale slaughter of CGI animals (did Katniss go round extracting all her arrows from their carcasses, I wonder?) There is also an attack by jabberjays, which probably looked better on paper, and an attack by a pustulous poison that very conveniently washes off with water (it wouldn’t do for our young protagonist to go around looking unsightly for any length of time).
I was disappointed not to see a filthy fucking prawn as one of the tributes from District 9, but I guess you can’t have everything. Last time around a child was compelled to compete, so this time there’s a very old woman. Wisely, she prevented from uttering a word. No such luck for Amanda Plummer, who is saddled with playing a textbook fruit loop (she even speaks in nursery rhymes). Sam Claflin, who was the best thing in last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman, is fine as the ridiculously buffed Finnick, but the stand out is Jena Malone as pissed-off kick-ass former winner Johanna (when she’s on screen Katniss becomes rather forgettable, particularly during the scene where she disrobes in a lift). Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be picking up the cheque as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new planner of the Games (replacing Wes Bentley). Poor Toby Jones returns but only gets one scene. Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) and Elizabeth Banks (Effie) are consistently good value.
Meanwhile, Donald Sutherland is typically superb but there’s no texture to his malignancy; part of making a world come alive is adding nuance to the villainy. He has a token granddaughter to suggest he isn’t all-monster, but she’s responsible for the body blow of the film’s cheesiest line (even given the “fake” romance between Katniss and Peeta); "When I grow up, I want to love someone that much".
So this is a typical sequel, stock in construction and lavishly packaged. Maybe the fetid romance and unfiltered social commentary works better on the page, but it holds little lasting impact in translation. It becomes a mishmash of other tales and a all rather self-evident “oppression is bad, the rich feeding off the poor is bad” position. And, after 75 years of Hunger Games with the sheep-like populace still watching, we know this cannot be a commentary on today’s society; we’d have got bored of it and switched off in a tenth of that time.