The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has the burden of following up on the enormous success of last year’s The Hunger Games along with filling the middle slot in the Hunger Games trilogy, leading up to the two-part adaptation of Mockingjay, the final book in Suzanne Collins’ sci-fi series. As such, it ends up being both a retread of the original and an extended setup for the finale, making it doubly unsatisfying. With a budget nearly twice that of its predecessor, Catching Fire is impressive in scope, full of dazzling special effects and elaborate action sequences. Yet it moves the story forward only incrementally, and its efforts at social commentary are muddled at best.
Jennifer Lawrence returns as steely teenager Katniss Everdeen, who is suffering from both PTSD and survivor’s guilt after triumphing in the previous edition of the Hunger Games, a deadly contest in which children are forced to fight each other to the death. Katniss and her fellow Hunger Games victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are sent on a publicity tour of their dystopian future world’s poor districts, on behalf of the decadent ruling class. But their defiance at the end of the Games has already begun inspiring rebellion, and so they end up conscripted into a sort of all-star version of the Hunger Games, competing against past winners of various ages.
This gives director Francis Lawrence (taking over from Gary Ross) the chance to add a bunch of accomplished actors to the cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone and Amanda Plummer, but none of them gets to make much of an impression. As a brash, defiant Hunger Games competitor, Malone stands out the most, but even she only has a handful of notable moments. As was the case in the first movie, characters have to be pared down from their representations on the page, and the focus remains on Katniss, Peeta and Katniss’ hometown love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Although Gale gets more screen time this time around (especially during the long buildup to the new Hunger Games), the central love triangle is still a bit of a non-starter.
That buildup does give Lawrence a chance to add some depth to her portrayal of Katniss, and she remains the strongest player in the franchise. The movie’s smallest moments are often its most compelling, but the plot drags considerably, and it seems like a lifetime before Katniss and Peeta finally face the inevitable and end up back in the Hunger Games arena. Although a final twist differentiates the outcome of the Games from the result in the first movie, it also makes them seem even more superfluous. After nearly two and a half hours, Katniss ends up not very far from where she was at the start, determined to fight for the downtrodden people of her world. That fight may end up being bold and exciting, but getting there is a little anticlimactic.