Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
President Snow would be proud.
There’s a depressing irony to the fact that The Hunger Games, a book series about the media’s ability to placate the masses with superficial distractions, is now a mainstream film franchise that has spawned its own cult of celebrity. It seems like I can’t turn on the television or browse the internet without hearing about what cute little thing Jennifer Lawrence did during the press tour, who might be cast in the next sequel, or how great the fashion looked at the red carpet premiere. At one point in the latest film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, one of the masterminds behind an oppressive regime comments that packaging fear along with frivolous news is the best way to keep a population in line. I couldn’t help but wonder if the filmmakers were admitting to being part of the problem.
Catching Fire picks up a few months after the first film, with Hunger Games arena survivor Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) grappling with PTSD and struggling to move on with her life. She’s grown closer to her hunting buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who remains jealous of her manufactured celebrity romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) despite her insistence it was all a ruse. Her defiant actions at the end of the Hunger Games have inspired anti-Capitol dissent in a few of the districts, and President Snow fears another uprising, so he tasks her with doing whatever it takes to calm things down. A lengthy press tour acting as a shill for the Capitol isn’t enough, however, and the new head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, replacing Wes Bentley’s Seneca Crane), has a few tricks up his sleeve to make her pay. President Snow decrees that this year’s Hunger Games’ contestants will only be taken from a pool of previous winners, so Katniss and Peeta find themselves back in the arena, this time fighting against older, more experienced warriors.
With a budget of over $130 million, everything about Catching Fire feels safe and mainstream, from its CGI-laden setpieces to the fact that so many recognizable actors agreed to sign on. This is a film so concerned with achieving the appearance of quality that it casts people like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer in thin, thankless roles when a cast of unknowns would have been just as effective.
Yet despite all the sheen and glossy visuals, Catching Fire feels entirely utilitarian, as if its primary goal is simply to put things on screen that fans will recognize and then move on to whatever comes next. Here’s that part with the white rose! Look, it’s Finnick! Oh right, killer monkeys! Structurally speaking, it’s nearly identical to the first movie, opening with the harsh realism of life in Panem before spending the second half on the Games themselves, only to end on a note that suggests Katniss’ actions could spark a revolution. As with first film, there isn’t even a proper ending; it just ends (though thankfully the final shot in this one is slightly more exciting than Donald Sutherland walking up some stairs).
All of the heavier political subtext feels watered-down in favor of moving things along, and there’s a hint of condescension hanging over everything, as if the audience can’t be trusted to sit still and reflect on the deeper implications of what’s happening. Few scenes are given time to breathe, and James Newton Howard’s score is always present as a crutch to remind viewers when to feel something. For a movie about the potential deaths of thousands of people, it all feels pretty disposable. The Hunger Games films might not be as cringe-inducing as the Twilight series, but they’re just as bland. Characters are introduced, they function in their particular mode for a while, there’s a vague attempt at romantic conflict, then cut to black, cue Coldplay (don’t forget to buy the soundtrack!), see you in a year. These movies are barely self-contained stories. They’re calculated corporate products designed to satisfy a pre-existing fanbase just enough to convince them to buy tickets to the next one. Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses; I wonder how he’d feel about our fan culture.
By the end of Catching Fire, Katniss is supposedly ready to take a stand against the Capitol and fight back, regardless of the consequences, but the film never quite gets into her head enough to make this development feel organic. Katniss spends most of the film reacting to things around her rather than emerging as a leader in her own right. The first film at least showed us how she used her wits to survive from day to day. Here, she mainly just runs from one part of the arena to another and relies on her new friends to rescue her. Is this really the symbol of rebellion the resistance movement needs?
To be fair, though, Catching Fire is at least a small improvement over the first film on a technical level. Gary Ross borrowed from the Paul Greengrass school of direction when filming the original–lots of shakycam and quick-cutting–but Chasing Fire director Francis Lawrence takes a different approach, allowing his camera to glide smoothly around the action so that the viewer can take it all in, and while the violence still feels overly-sanitized, at least it’s comprehensible. The larger budget also gives him the freedom to jump to a variety of locations, from thick jungle terrain to calm beaches and regal courtyards. It may ultimately be a trifle of a film, but it looks good, and as the movie frequently reminds us, appearances are often what matter the most.
The supporting cast also gets a little more to do this time, albeit with material that’s far beneath them. Stanley Tucci once again chews the scenery as boisterous media personality Caesar Flickerman, and it’s nice to see Elizabeth Banks receive a little more screen time as Effie Trinket, Katniss’ ditzy but sincere chaperone. And of course, Hoffman brings a foreboding sense of menace to even the most incidental lines, but he’s given so little to work with that I can only hope he’ll have a larger role in future films (or at least received a sizable paycheck).
Most of the new cast members are playing Katniss’ fellow tributes and potential rivals, and they give admirable performances despite having little to do. Sam Claflin is effective cardboard eye candy; Amanda Plummer stumbles around acting deranged; Jeffrey Wright mumbles monotonously. All of them are compelling screen presences, but they’re far from three-dimensional characters. The most memorable new personality by far is Jena Malone as sarcastic tribute Johanna Mason, a confident and chaotic bundle of energy that injects a bit of life into the film every time she appears. There’s an aura of unpredictability around her, like she might suddenly send things careening off course into uncharted territory, and I found myself wishing that she was the protagonist of her own film.
The real standout, however, continues to be Jennifer Lawrence, who manages to use this toothless franchise as a reminder of why she has an Oscar. She fully throws herself into the role of Katniss, infusing genuine emotional depth into proceedings that otherwise feel rote and coldly calculated. Everything around her seems designed to distract the audience from feeling the full weight of what’s hanging in the balance, but Lawrence manages to convey through her eyes that the stakes aren’t just abstract political conflicts, they’re personal. Katniss is a victim of gradual, oppressive psychological abuse, and even if she survives, it could be at the cost of her soul.
The main problem with Catching Fire is that, while it’s not particularly bad, it’s also not very good. It just functions, translating moments from the book onto the big screen with little time to reflect on their significance. Like the first film, it’s a work about the spark of revolution that doesn’t feel even slightly rebellious—if the Capitol ever decided to make big-budget movies about the Hunger Games, these would be the ones they’d make. What will it take for us to rise up and demand something better?