Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire (2013)

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Directed by – Francis Lawrence
Written by – Simon Beaufoy & Michael deBruyn
Based on Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Starring – Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Clafin, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci & Donald Sutherland

Those of you who’ve seen Evil Dead II will undoubtedly know that there’s a bit of debate about whether it’s a sequel to or a remake of the original film. It’s similar in structure to and pretty much rewrites everything that happened in The Evil Dead, yet still the debate rumbles on because it also acts as a continuation of the initial story. It’s all very confusing – not to mention irritating – but at least it’s to some extent intentional because the rights to the original film no longer belonged to Sam Raimi.

Now, maybe I’m suffering from a serious bout of déjà vu but is this film not youth fiction’s version of the Evil Dead II dilemma? Unless I’m missing something big, which I don’t think I am, is this not just The Hunger Games all over again? Other than a few minor changes it certainly feels that way. It’s the same length, split into two distinct sections – the pre-games, complete with reaping, training and publicity, followed by the games themselves – and it deals with the same themes without expanding on them until the very end. For all intents and purposes, this is the first film repackaged with a cliff-hanger ending. I knew this was the case but I didn’t expect it to be this repetitive.

The film begins in the wake of the 74th Hunger Games, in which Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence; Silver Linings Playbook, X-Men: First Class) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson; Bridge to Terabithia, Detention) triumphed. Ever since their act of defiance (or was it love? Who knows? Who cares…) saw them both claim victory, the residents of Panam have started rebelling and, as such, laughable villain President Snow (Sutherland; Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ordinary People) is not a happy bunny. He wants Katniss and Peeta dead, and he wants the revolution quashed and so he comes up with a scheme to kill two mockingjays with one stone; namely, to throw both of them back into the games and expose their relationship as a fraud.

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The problem is obvious; we’ve seen it all before. There are a few minor changes – this time, for example, the games will be fought by 24 previous victors – and the ideas of revolution and totalitarianism are given a bit more screen time, but for the most part the film offers nothing new. Worse still, the freshness that it does offer doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it’s supposed to. It’s a darker affair, sure, and there are moments when it shows signs of erupting into a glorious political allegory, but these are muted by the fact that the main focus is still the “oh-so-difficult” life of the protagonist, whose main concern is whether she wants to be with Peeta or Gale (Hemsworth; Empire State, The Expendables 2). Like last time the love-triangle doesn’t just get in the way, it also nulls the effect of the film’s more serious points. I gave this side of the plot a bit of a pass last time, but there’s only so much dreck I can take before my patience starts to wear thin and, for me, this film took the piss just a little bit too much.

Furthermore, the attempts to up the stakes and crank up the tension fall flat. The first games, tame as they were, had a human aspect to them that made them easier to invest in. This time the enemies are much more dangerous and the natural threats are much more pronounced, yet the effect of it all is feeble. It doesn’t help that the man in charge of the games – Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman; The Master, Capote) – is terribly written and involved in a twist that doesn’t make a scrap of sense, nor does it help that some of the threats the participants face (such as the poisonous fog) are ridiculous and childish. The new arena in which the games take place is well-designed, and the film in itself is well choreographed, but for me the film actually suffered a dip in quality once the games began, and when that happens, you know something is pretty seriously wrong…

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Nevertheless, not everything about this film is bad. The performances are pretty solid across the board and though the minor characters are perhaps even more underdeveloped than they were in the first film, the ones we already know are given a bit more personality. The star of the film for me is Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, Zombieland), who doesn’t just provide the laughs but also grants his character a twinge of tragedy. Banks (The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Movie 43) and Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, The Devil Wears Prada) are great in their respective roles while Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as always. Hutcherson I can take or leave, and I thought Sam Clafin (Snow White and the Huntsman, United) was terrible as the apparent anti-hero of the piece – Finnick Odair – but for the most part the performances are engaging, if not a little overplayed.

Alas, that’s about all Catching Fire has going for it. It’s not a bad film; it’s just a repetitive one that does almost nothing to expand on what we’ve already seen. It looks great and it’s relatively well-acted but, other than that, it’s a very empty film. It sometimes threatens to “get good” but then fails to capitalise on the themes that make the basic narrative interesting. It builds-up, sluggishly and heavily, to a flaky conclusion that feels far too rushed. The final few minutes don’t make logical sense – heck, they don’t even make sense in terms of character development – and the whole film feels like little more than a preamble to the events of Mockingjay.

I’ve seen this film before – it was called The Hunger Games back then (actually, it was called Rollerball, but let’s ignore the fact that this entire series is still just a poor imitation of lots of better material…) – and I had no desire to see it remade. As someone who enjoyed the first film far more than I expected to, Catching Fire is hugely disappointing. The talents of Lawrence, Harrelson, Hoffman and Sutherland are wasted, the plot is repetitive – not to mention dull – and the film lacks both tension and meaning. It’s a by-the-numbers rehash of its predecessor and I’m genuinely stunned that it has been quite so well received.

★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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