THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.
It’s time to play the audaciously bombastic music. It’s time to light the blaring strobe lights. It’s time to meet the tributes on the Hunger Games tonight. The Muppet Show ran from 1976 to 1981 and began the same way every week. Repetition, they call it. TV is a big fan. Criminal Minds is basically the same thing every week with some characters and crimes varied.
The Hunger Games Colon Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence’s big-budget, big-release date sequel to Gary Ross’ comparitively small 2012 teen sci-fi thriller, is like Episode 2 of The Muppet Show- the first, but with bells on. That first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling and largely OK young adult trilogy featured young heroine Katniss Everdeen forced to contend in a futuristic TV gameshow where the young players must kill each other until one remains. This film sees pretty much that same thing happen, but with bells on. It picks up months after The Hunger Games‘ sudden ending, which saw Katniss and her boy/friend Peeta Mellark cheat the usual system by threatening to both kill themselves until they were declared joint winners. Donald Sutherland’s villainous caricature-of-a-leader President Snow is not happy about this, and comes to visit Katniss minutes into the opening act.
The first film consisted of two acts- Katniss preparing for The Games and Katniss in The Games. Catching Fire, however, has three, which seriously effects the running time. The first 50 minutes is Katniss After The First Games, going on the ‘Victory Tour’ and encountering the impending revolution she has caused. The middle 45 minutes is Katniss preparing for The Second Games, as it is revealed that for the 75th Anniversary, all contestants will be former winners. The last hour is, as you might expect, Katniss in The Games. Unlike in the previous film, it isn’t only about Katniss once we enter the arena. Her fellow tributes play a much bigger role than last time, most likely because they are- apart from Peeta- adults, played by accomplished actors who are capable of appearing beside the superb Lawrence without looking silly. Lawrence is a truly great actress, as most people on Earth are aware of. However, it’s awful that she was awarded a token Oscar this year for Silver Linings Playbook, undoubtedly her worst major performance to date, as she could have gotten one in a year or two for a far more memorable film. Her face is rarely off screen during Catching Fire, and when it is the focus is put on Philip Seymour Hoffman in, frankly, a cameo as head ‘gamesmaker’ Plutarch Heavensbee.
THG saw the only cutaways from The Games go to Wes Bentley’s ‘gamesmaker’, but one would expect the more important characters of Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks’ Effie to get some Games-time scenes here- they don’t. In fact, The Games themselves- starting halfway through a tremendously long work of cinema- feel incredibly obtuse. I have come to the theory that the reason for the film’s length is to make the audience even more sympathetic to the Tributes’ ordeal, as they sit and wait for their torture to end. Katniss knows not when she will be killed, but Peeta leaving The Games alive is her main goal throughout. The fact that two more of these films are set for release, and that Katniss is possibly the most beloved franchise hero currently in a Hollywood series suggests everything may not turn out as planned.
Josh Hutcherson does a surprisingly good job as Peeta here, far more likeable and watchable than before. In THG, he was a wimpering, soppy teenager whom Katniss had no passion for, and hence it was hard for the audience to like. As Katniss starts to fall for Peeta during Catching Fire, so do we, seeing his kindness and selflessness come to the fore through all his actions. Liam Hemsworth, meanwhile, is a total waste of space once again as Katniss’ little-seen childhood friend Gale, and gives a bad name to young Aussie actors with the surname Hemsworth.
That aforementioned supporting cast of tributes do fine work, Jeffrey Wright charming as tech expert Beetee, Amanda Plummer oddly charismatic as Wiress, Jena Malone terrifyingly tough as Johanna and Sam Claflin not as revoltingly over-handsome as the trailers would make out. That’s the thing about these films that makes them different from Twilight: even if the marketing makes you think there’s a token hottie male about to turn up, there isn’t. Every character in this film (and there are LOADS) is there for a reason!
The problems with the film come mostly with it’s time and timing (ironic, as ‘time’ is a major theme). Aside from the 2.5 hours of action, The Games are very rushed. Every time a ‘bad thing’ happe
ns to the tributes, something else happens straight away. Hence, all the very well made action scenes meld into one memory, taking away strongly from the film’s lasting impression. If the middle section, the Muppet Show section, of all the stuff Katniss did in the first film had been cut to 15-20 minutes and The Games extended to 80, the overall package would have been seriously improved. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll be aware of the massive cliffhanger ending- surprisingly unique for a YA work, which here feels like a total anticlimax- coming halfway through a little built-up scene. After the first film’s terribly constructed finale and this film’s extreme length, it would have been nice if they added just a little bit of a proper ending, apart from the epic, literal, collapse of the system. Considering how the tone of the whole film echoes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2, from the beautifully quiet opening scenes to the fiery middle section, it’s odd that Francis Lawrence would choose to practically lead straight into next November’s unnecessary ‘Part 1′ of the final film, Mockingjay.
With the explosion-heavy, military pornography that is Transformers 4 just around the corner, it’s hard not to appreciate a major blockbuster which uses violence only to show how horrible it is and which carries an important but in no way preachy message for teens. Lawrence proves once again how amazing she is, Katniss being the role she was born to play, while the seriously problematic running time achieves one positive thing in giving the supporting cast time to shine. A bloated but consistently engaging, gloomy but sexy adaptation, this is another high quality action film to come out of the money-machine that is Hollywood this Winter.