Audiences in search of a new teen series to fill in for Harry Potter have made The Hunger Games, based on the book by Suzanne Collins, become a big hit, scoring over $600 million at the box office and printing out millions of new copies of the novel. I for one found the first movie to be somewhat unfocused; while The Hunger Games could have been a fierce satire, it felt too much like tween fodder, subduing the book’s more violent scenes in favor for a PG-13 rating. It boasted some tense moments and great action, but the flawed logic weighed the movie down. Catching Fire is an improvement over the last installment, but still has an uneven pace, with an overly melodramatic first act and a stronger, more confident second one. While tonally imbalanced, Catching Fire is entertaining, but it’s hard not to feel that it could have been better.
Taking place immediately after the previous film, Catch Fire deals with the teenage angst of protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she struggles to maintain her false romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) after winning last year’s Hunger Games. Her victory has greatly angered President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who sees that her win could create an uprising against the capital. With consultation from the new game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow attempts to kill off Katniss through the 75th Hunger Games, where past victors will now have to fight against each other.
The first hour or so focuses on Katniss’ grief from last year’s games as she mourns the pointless violence and loss she endured as well as hiding her love for her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) while having to marry Peeta in order to keep up with appearances. This section of the movie largely contrasts the poverty-stricken District 12, which looks like it came directly out of Soviet-era Russia, to the Capital, where urbanites dress in absurd and bizarre clothing that make Lady Gaga’s costumes seem normal in comparison. The eccentric lives of the people is not too subtle satire at those who obsess over reality TV shows, but is well crafted and pointed (one scene reveals that the city’s inhabitants take a drink to make them puke so they can eat more).
The trouble with this section is that I found it uninteresting and rather dull. Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay often calls for some tacky and stale dialogue from its actors, which can elicit some unintended laughs. There isn’t as much charisma from the actors as the last picture. While Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland are very strong in their roles as well as Woody Harrelson as Katniss’ drunk mentor Haymitch, Jennifer Lawrence lacks much of the bite she showed in The Hunger Games as well as in Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook.
But director Francis Lawrence kicks the movie into high gear once the actual games starts, giving the movie a much-needed feel of excitement and intensity it was missing. The stakes have been clearly raised higher as obstacles and traps grow more and more dangerous, featuring tidal waves, poisonous fogs, and ravaging baboons, not to mention the character Finnick (Sam Claflin, who strangely reminded me of Willem Dafoe). Lawrence wisely doesn’t utilize as much handheld shots as director Gary Ross did, making Catching Fire feel more polished up.
If Catching Fire consisted only of its second half, I would write a much stronger recommendation, but the opening hour brings the movie down, making the experience overall a mixed bag. Still, in the world where Transformer movies rake in billions in the box office, it’s nice to see a movie with creativity