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Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – A slow burn

Posted by on November 22, 2013 – 7:50 am

The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Hunger Games hype-machine is back in full force with everything from local car dealerships to makeup companies and Subway sandwiches jumping on the Everdeen bandwagon. It’s ironic that this movie which attempts to make a statement on the negative influence that media has on society is so successful at manipulating those very institutions, making this film franchise a pop cultural juggernaut capable of mowing down its cinematic competition and common sense with unreasonable and unstoppable force.

I don’t begrudge young girls their hero and I’m actually excited that author Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games book trilogy is so successful (kids reading is always a good thing), but excitement and literary success does not necessarily or automatically make a good film. It certainly doesn’t in this case, nor did it with the first Hunger Games film, regardless of whether the snowball-effect of self-fulfilling plaudits convinces the world of its greatness or not.

So this review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, part two in Katniss Everdeen’s three-part (four movie) adventure in the freakishly fashioned society of the future, will not convince fans to avoid seeing the film (they have probably already seen it and enjoyed it), nevertheless, here is my take on this goofy sci-fi survival story.

If you are new to this tale, it takes place in an undetermined future when the rich have enslaved the poor and fenced them into “districts” where a girl and a boy from each area are annually sacrificed as “tributes” who compete in a life and death reality game show called, The Hunger Games. The contestants have to fight against out-of-nowhere obstacles and each other until only one “victor” stands and wins favor (and food) for their respective home district.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire“I did what I had to do to survive, otherwise I’d be dead, ” is the superfluous line Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) uses to explain her pseudo love affair with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to her real boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), just before she leaves on a forced “Victory Tour” with her co-winner of the 74th Hunger Games. The first half of this movie is full of teenage melodrama, but even by the end I wasn’t sure who really won the affections of Ms. Everdeen (maybe we’ll find out by the third or [ugh] fourth film.)

Somehow, Katniss’ bold hardheadedness has inspired the beginnings of a revolution amongst the unfortunate citizens of the districts, and she is also admired by the rich folk who know her from television. So to suppress the uprising, the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) orders a “Quarter Quell” version of the Hunger Games that will only involve former victors, thus nearly ensuring Katniss’ death. He can’t just outright kill the girl due to her popularity.

The Quarter Quell at least introduces some interesting characters, like Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), who steals the show as a slutty badass former victor with an attitude, and the nerdy scientist, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), who became a victor by MacGyvering a way to electrocute his opponents. But some of the other new characters, like Beetee’s girlfriend Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and an old lady named Mags (Lynn Cohen) are annoying and (if you are lucky) won’t last long in the games. (I’m not saying.)

The Hunger Games: Catching FireOur heroes go up against baboons (which were actually pretty cool), poison fog, lightning strikes and tsunami-sized waves, all mysteriously manufactured somehow by the games’ controller, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), under the dome of the Hunger Games coliseum. I had a problem with this concept from the first movie as well, in that “game creators” are able to magically pull obscure obstacles out of their hat with no indication as to how (or why) this is even possible. It’s all rather absurd in that (if this is still Earth) the laws of physics should still apply – even in the future.

I’m not really sure why the Hunger Game arenas bother me so much when I’m perfectly fine, for instance, with the very similar “Danger Room” from X-Men lore. I guess the difference is that if I’m accepting superheroes and superpowers then there is room in that mental universe for a fantasy place like the Danger Room; but in the Hunger Games the setting is the real world of our future and I seriously doubt that a god-like arena where real dangerous entities can be created on the fly by some technician will ever exist in reality. (Prove me wrong, science.)    

To make matters worse, some of the visual effects, especially the tidal wave, are horrendously bad. Don’t get me started on the crane-game like extraction devices, the wash away chemical blisters and the giant clock. (Tick-tock! [Groan]) I also have to say I don’t get this future’s fascination with bad make-up and clothing, I don’t know if any of this is explained or makes sense in the books, but it’s just silly on the movie screen.

The Hunger Games: Catching FireSo, there has to be something good about this movie, right? Jennifer Lawrence is good as Katniss, but I really think this is just her paycheck job, not that she doesn’t do a great job with the weak dialogue and story she has to work with, but she just doesn’t shine like she does in Silver Linings Playbook. I felt Lawrence was actually overshadowed by Jena Malone, who has a relatively minor part.

Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Stanley Tucci all return with adequate performances in their roles as Haymitch Abernathy, Effie Trinket, Cinna and Caesar Flickerman, respectively. I don’t know how Suzanne Collins came up with some of these names, but I’m assuming she used some sort of online children’s book character naming application. (Mine was “Everwright Spurnmore” by the way.)

As directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), the final straw in this overlong (143 minutes) film is its ending, which I can’t speak of other than to say it left me with my mouth agape, not in surprise or shock, but in head-scratching incredulity. This sequel and the first film are notorious for creating story structure and rules within the film’s universe and then breaking them. If you’re not thinking then maybe it’s more entertaining.

For my money, there’s not much new here beyond the first film, which was mediocre at best; and I’m not going to rehash that this movie borrows heavily from many better films. As far as young adult entertainment goes, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is head and shoulders above the Twilight movies and I’m sure that due to its built-in audience and the popularity of its star it’s going to be a huge success (if you look at industry analysis, it already is – even before its theatrical release.) But this movie’s biggest accomplishment is not what is on screen, but that it has once again been marketed as a hit and is already fulfilling that prophecy – justified or not. Grade: 4/10

Photos © 2013 Lionsgate

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