The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, unusually for a sequel, shades the original but succumbs to the modern disease of bloated running length. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy.
The Hunger Games was a celebrated critical and commercial success, so it’s no surprise to see the second of the series, Catching Fire, picking up where the first left off. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson once again take centre stage as young protagonists Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, and the film opens with the ever-attractive pair maintaining the façade of a relationship that was established in the first film. Their fabricated televised love affair saved them both from extermination at the hands of the eponymous games, but, it seems, produced the side-effect of encouraging murmurs of revolution in the ‘districts’. These labour-intensive regions, which look not unlike Barnsley, are the series’ nightmarish vision of subservient provinces of a single, all-powerful central capital.
Things quickly get political with President (Donald Sutherland) Coriolanus Snow’s attempts to quell the revolution coming to the fore and stretching to fill the first two-thirds of the lengthy running time. Snow’s propagandist efforts to disconnect Katniss and Peeta from the revolutionary cause see them carted from district to district on a carefully stage-managed victory tour, only to see a series of unscripted moments ratchet up local tensions. Strangely, the constantly aggravated Snow never lands upon the idea of pre-recording or, indeed, editing. Perhaps they haven’t been invented yet.
A game of cat and mouse ensues as Katniss and Peeta are assisted by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) in attempting to placate the ruthless President Snow, who increasingly believes that the eradication of the central pairing is required to quell the revolutionary districts. This already baggy intro is weighed down further by bit-part characters and occasional subplots drifting in and out of focus. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as a new addition to the cast for this outing, but to what end it’s difficult to tell. He plays a political strategist initially trying to protect Katniss, before the role morphs into that of the Head Gamemaker of the titular games. It’s an ill-defined performance that wastes Hoffman’s considerable talents, while Harrelson and Banks provide insubstantial semi-comic assistance to Katniss whenever the film decides to go for a cup of tea.
As the narrative (very) slowly advances and the inevitable Hunger Games themselves draw closer, Stanley Tucci’s flamboyant presenter Caesar Flickerman comes into focus. These sequences were certainly some of the most fun in the first film but are rendered tiresome here by an impending sense of ‘let’s move proceedings along’. This is something of a shame, since Tucci clearly has a lot of fun in his hammiest role to date. Lenny Kravitz’s appearance should be mentioned as well, if only for its extreme creepiness.
If you’ve made it through the first section of the film, there’s an almost jarring gear change as we move to the obligatory training montage and the crescendo that is the games themselves. The hunger games section in the first film was a complete anti-climax, a reasonably entertaining narrative superseded by tedious predictability. I expected nothing less here and was pleasantly surprised. The film changes tack completely as we are presented with a comically eclectic bunch of characters including a brainiac, an over-the-top she-warrior, and an all-American hunk. Sounds like a high school ensemble transplant, right? Well there is one unexpectedly interesting twist; the aforementioned hunk dedicates much of his energy to protecting his elderly female mentor and/or cougar. Whether the viewer could believe that an 80-year-old woman would ever be sent into a certain-death ruckus is a matter best left for another article.
Dubious inter-generational pairings aside, the final section becomes a haunted house movie, only set in a future reality TV jungle. You know, one of those. Highlights include a bubonic plague- inducing fog; you’ll think you’re in the opening scene of Evil Dead. Psycopathic CGI baboon-like creatures, invisible perimeters that fry the unfortunate rambler and an island with a rather unpredictable tide are just a few more of the inventive threats on offer. The cynic in me actually wondered why this film, with so many action set-pieces, wasn’t released in 3D to squeeze an extra couple of pounds out of the paying public.
Anyway, the section is concise, exciting, and visually interesting, in stark contrast to the rest of the film. Earlier sequences show off CGI cityscapes that carry plenty of detail, but there is no sense of anyone actually living in there; in the jungle we finally get a sense of a visceral world for our protagonist to explore, and it’s the perfect setting for the exciting conclusion (which, as you might expect from the second in a series of book adaptations, sets things up nicely for the next instalment).
Unusually for a sequel, this entry shades the (admittedly mediocre) original but succumbs to the modern disease of bloated running length; at least a quarter of the film could happily have been cut with no harm done.