Let’s get this out at the beginning: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is not a very likable young woman, and it’s puzzling why both Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are so enamored of her. She’s self-absorbed and sullen, and is just as likely to ignore either young man as offer them a smile. For their own part, the boys aren’t much better. Gale is the “bad boy” miner who has been friends with “katnip” since they were young children and Peeta is the alarmingly boring, colorless baker’s son who has adored Katniss from afar since they were young, but can’t actually just tell her he’s in love.
The first film, The Hunger Games, ended with Katniss having not just survived the titular “games” (which are an imaginative reworking of the survival game in the great Japanese horror film Battle Royale) but also having manipulated the game rules so that her fellow District 12 representative Peeta also survives. By doing this, they’ve incurred the wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who recognizes in Katniss the danger of a martyr who offers the oppressed citizens of Panem a symbol behind whom they can rally. Think Jonathan E. in Rollerball.
Katniss is a very reluctant hero and this second film opens with her and Gale hunting, interrupted by flashbacks of her terrifying experiences in the Games. When she’s with Gale, he’s her boy of choice, but when Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) show up from the Capital to prepare her for the Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts, she learns that she has to convince everyone — including a menacing President Snow — that it’s Peeta she loves. So she switches. Or does she? Or do we even care?
The tour sequence is like a short visit to the film 1984, with dirty industrial zones, everything in a muted grey palette and stormtroopers everywhere, beating citizens and shooting people suspect of being part of the rebellion. As you can see in the photo (bellow) the troops look more like extras from the new Star Wars sequel than anything else. Even with the increased repression, the citizens of these beleaguered districts see Katniss as a symbol of hope, of rebellion against the totalitarian government.
As a consequence, Snow declares that the next Hunger Games is going to be a “quarter quell”, where two of the victors from each District must again compete in the Games. No surprise, Katniss and Peeta end up representing District 12 (and why doesn’t Gale volunteer, speaking of which, if he’s so in love with Katniss and so jealous of Peeta?) and this time the tributes include both the agile and dangerous and the old and infirm.
Just like a game of Risk, there’s no way to have allies in a game where the ultimate goal is to kill everyone else. Katniss and Peeta certainly try, however, as their behavior becomes more daftly noble and illogical, partnering up with the enjoyable Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), his grandmother Mags (Lynn Cohen in a completely forgettable role) and Johanna (Jena Malone), the goth who was by far the most interesting of all the tributes. She is who Katniss should have been.
Hunger Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has created a particularly nefarious arena for the 75th Hunger Games, an arena designed to constantly put Katniss at a disadvantage and ultimately kill her to quell the growing uprising. Or perhaps not. Unfortunately, Hoffman is hands down one of the worst performers in Catching Fire, often looking and acting like he just walked off the street and hasn’t gotten into character yet on the set. It makes Plutarch a completely unbelievable character and his interplay with the evil Snow comes across more like a rehearsal than anything else. Even his costuming is inexplicable, modern street clothes in the midst of a massive party at the Capital where everyone else, even Katniss and Peeta, are in bright, elaborate costumes.
There’s still a fair amount to like in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, however. The exterior shots of the Capital are terrific, the costumes are wonderful and if the film steals visuals and ideas from a cornucopia of other movies, well, that’s how films work, right? The challenges that Katniss and team face in the Games arena are quite well realized (including a poisonous fog and vicious troop of baboons), even if there’s no-one in this film whose death has the emotional impact of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) being killed in the first movie.
Catching Fire is a good DVD rental rather than expensive Saturday night movie ticket purchase. It’s a teen film and unless that’s your thing — and unless you felt the Twilight movies were deep and profound — you might just find this a surprisingly banal, albeit visually stunning waste of almost 3 hours of your life. Oh, and keep the younger kids at home. There are a number of surprisingly intense sequences that are going to prove disturbing to younger teens.