Despite new director, bigger budget, 'Catching Fire' still fizzles
Published: Friday, November 22, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 3:20 p.m.
The best thing one can say about “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is, at the very least, it's better than its predecessor.
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks
This new installment has a bigger budget and a new director, both of which help some, but it's still weighed down by a bloated script, generic visual design and a cast that largely seems to have checked out.
“Catching Fire,” then, smolders rather than sets the audience ablaze.
It's amazing how, at two and a half hours long, “Catching Fire” manages to take so long to tell so little. After the events of the first film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to embark on a victory tour of all the outlying districts of their homeland. Katniss is having PTSD flashbacks and hallucinations after the horror of the Hunger Games, but she's also dealing with her surly pseudo-boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who's upset at the pretend relationship Katniss and Peeta cooked up during the games to help them survive. And then President Snow (Donald Sutherland) comes knocking and delivering not-so-vague threats, telling Katniss that she needs to play up the love story so those pesky people in the districts will stop causing a ruckus.
Suffice it to say that if you didn't see “The Hunger Games,” you'll be lost here. There's so much backstory and exposition that the movie takes forever to find any semblance of momentum, and it's infuriating because the whole victory-tour-as-propaganda business is just a prelude to another round of Hunger Games (explaining the plot mechanics by which this happens would take entirely too long and wouldn't be worth the effort). And then the movie ends on a cliffhanger. It's a blatant case of “middle movie as setup for the end” syndrome, an exercise in stall tactics solely designed to get fans of the books to pony up their money while waiting to deliver the goods in the two-part finale.
To be clear, this isn't to say “Catching Fire” is actively bad. Rather, it's just stiflingly boring. There's lots of potentially interesting stuff at play, but a series of bad decisions have hobbled the franchise. The Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle is boring, and every time it comes up the movie shudders to a halt. There's a stab at cultural relevancy with the bit about using entertainment to distract the masses, but it's delivered with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast to the face, breaking the “show, don't tell” rule that makes such commentary effective.
A lot of this could be forgiven if more of the cast and crew showed some effort. New director Francis Lawrence has thankfully thrown out the shaky cam approach and puts together a couple decent action scenes, but he's unwilling or unable to break with the visual design from the first movie, meaning we're stuck with a pretty generic dystopian future setting.
As for the cast, most of them look like they're just here for the paycheck. Lawrence, especially, looks bored to be here after winning her Oscar and moving on to bigger things, and when your star is bored your movie is almost certainly doomed. The only actors with pulses in the movie are Hutcherson, who finally gets to do more than just mope around and look mournfully at Katniss (though there is still some of that), and Stanely Tucci as Caesar, the overcaffeinated, perpetually smiling TV personality. Tucci's performance is ludicrously over-the-top, but you'll be grateful for it because it gives the movie a brief burst of energy whenever he shows up.
It's easy to see why “Catching Fire” was made; the first movie was a mega-hit driven by fans of the book, and they'll likely turn out for this one out of sheer devotion. But the movie offers very little to those who aren't already invested, making it just as much of a distraction as the games it depicts.
Read more of staff writer Rob Ryan's thoughts on movies on his blog at projections.blogs.gainesville.com.