"Catching Fire" Lazily Rehashes Its Predecessor

The film version of “The Hunger Games” manages to divert from its own hype by a telling a genuinely compelling story in a stunningly confident manner. Despite its target audience, there is no pandering to younger audiences and I suspect many adults will get significantly more out of the treasure trove of nods to film and literature classics. While it’s not a wholly original piece, it creates a pretty wonderful sociological patchwork from its various influences. Recommended.

That’s what I wrote in March 2012 to document my first foray in the “Hunger Games” universe. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read the books, but director Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel impressed me, nonetheless. It was several cuts above the amiable nonsense of the “Twilight” series, rivaled only by “Harry Potter” in competing for the young-adult-novel-to-film crown.

Exit Gary Ross, enter Francis Lawrence, the director of the rightfully underseen “Constantine” and a multitude of high-profile music videos – the best of which is Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” clip. “Constantine” aside, Lawrence is a capable director, and “Catching Fire” seemed like a good match for his visual instincts. Armed with a cast that keeps growing its star power and a substantially larger budget, the filmmaker seemed poised to take over the reins of the franchise seamlessly.

But here’s the thing. Assuming “Catching Fire” stays mostly faithful to Collins’ book, the book is little more than a rehash of its predecessor. The resulting film feels more like a remake than a sequel, expanding on atmosphere and little else. Once again, we get an hour of exposition – moderately interesting exposition, but exposition, nevertheless – followed by 90 minutes of the most humdrum action of the 2013. Except, this time around, the emotional stakes have cratered thanks to the pic’s (book’s?) insistence on being an archetypical “middle film” in a pseudo-trilogy (the third and final book, “Mockingjay,” will be expanded into two films). Also, the setpieces make no logical or spatial sense.

Hunger Games champion, Katniss Everdeen (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence), has been sent on a press tour by the Capitol with co-champion, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), during which they witness and add fuel to the fire of a public uprising. As unwilling puppets of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss and Peeta have no choice but to continue their is-it-or-isn’t-it manufactured romance, the latter ultimately proposing to the former on a national stage.

But Katniss is still in love with her hometown sweetheart, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), thus carrying over the same love triangle from the first film – with virtually no development from any of the involved parties. Predictably, Katniss and Peeta are forced into a sort of all-star Hunger Games – in celebration of the games’ 75th anniversary – facing off against a battalion of past winners. With the continued guidance of their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the two once again enter the theater of war in tandem, a theater that looks similar – if slightly more tropical – to the last go-round.

The screenplay dutifully introduces the batch of new combatants (two of them notably played by Jena Malone and Jeffrey Wright), but the sense of collusion between participants is instantly palpable. No one seems particularly interested in killing each other, which is where the series derives the bulk of its drama. Its place as a riff on “The Most Dangerous Game” and “Lord Of The Flies” is what made the first film compelling, but there’s surprisingly little life-or-death drama here. What we have instead is a lightning tree, a massive sundial, and lethal fog – all part of a cavalcade of nonsensical story elements.

Amiss is any film that can’t figure out what to do with Philip Seymour Hoffman – arguably the best actor of his generation. But in a bit part as the President’s head gamemaker, Hoffman has so little to do that it’s a wonder he’s in the film at all – at least until his character’s trajectory is opportunely (if all too tidily) mapped out in its waning moments. He’ll obviously have much more to do in the “Mockingjay” films, but here he merely exists as a plot twist – an admittedly decent plot twist that gives the narrative far too easy of an out. As far as cliffhangers go, it’s pretty unsatisfying, but at least it hints at more substantive things to come.

For fans of the books with inborn, guttural connections to these characters, the film might make more sense, despite an absolute hamster wheel of a story. Non die-hards, like myself, are likely to reassess positive feelings about the first film while hoping that the “Mockingjay” films do a significantly better job of exploring the issues at hand. Whereas “The Hunger Games” made for some interesting political commentary, “Catching Fire” is content to rest on its laurels, adding nothing to the conversation. It’s a skin-deep blockbuster that might edify fans’ enjoyment of the book – but it’ll bore everyone else to tears.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 22, 2013
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn, Scott Frank
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Bruno Gunn, Alan Ritchson, E. Roger Mitchell, Maria Howell, Stephanie Leigh Schlund, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)