The Hunger Games: Catching Fire spends forty-five minutes building up promises of great things to come, and then ninety minutes rehashing the first film. It does us the honor of hammering in a contrived twist at the end before the screen fades to black and we wait for the next film to come out next year. The problem is, I don’t think I’m that much interested any more.
The first Hunger Games surprised me. In that film, a tyrannical futuristic government manages to suppress its people through an annual event where citizens from poor districts are selected by lottery to compete in a battle to the death. The action in the arena of the Hunger Games was exciting and tense, and I came to care about the characters involved. The story hinted at a growing rebellion, an idea that’s fleshed out at the beginning of Catching Fire. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), having survived the first film, is paraded from district to district with her co-survivor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), for the downtrodden to fawn over them like celebrities. The evil President of Panem, Snow (Donald Sutherland), delights in the massaging of the masses by their beloved reality stars, until the people begin to see the pair as a symbol of hope and take to rioting in the streets.
I was good up to this point. The story kept me interested as it unfolded, and I was amused (again) by Katniss’ entourage, including the eccentric, if dramatic, image consultant, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and television host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), who isn’t too many steps removed from Joel Grey’s Emcee in Cabaret. Unfortunately, the screenplay (and, I suppose, the enormously successful source novel by Susanne Collins) takes a silly turn by putting Katniss and Peeta back in the identical situation they survived in the original film. Apparently, there’s a super-Hunger Games, called a Quell, where — surprise! — the contestants are culled from a pool of former winners. We get a lot of scenes of alliance building and contestants slaughtering one another at random. This time, the arena is constructed under a massive dome, in which challenges are released on the hour — things like tidal waves, ravenous monkeys, fog and torrential downpours of blood. There’s much shrieking and slicing and shooting of arrows into flesh, as Katniss and the others devise ways to make it though the game alive.
What’s the point? We’ve already seen this identical scenario done far better. None of the characters gives us any reason to care about what happens to them. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer do nice work as a pair of technology geeks who survived their own Hunger Games by electrocuting six people at once, and Jena Malone appears light years ahead of her early work in movies like Contact, as a Lisbeth Salander punk who’s handy with an axe. Jennifer Lawrence is an undeniable talent, but she doesn’t do anything new with Katniss this time around.
I don’t know. After the first film, I was intrigued to see the second. Now, I’m not so sure about the third. I understand the last installment will be split into two films. If either of them is as disappointing as this one, I’m in big trouble.