The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation, and language
Running Time: 146 min.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Lenny Kravitz, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen
Small role: Toby Jones
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBryrn (Michael Arndt) (based on the book, "Catching Fire", by Suzanne Collins)

Review published November 21 2013

Catching Fire is the much-anticipated follow-up to the wildly popular The Hunger Games, based on the young adult book series by Suzanne Collins. With the new film comes a new director, Francis Lawrence, who gives us less character touches but more emphasis on action (thankfully, with less of the shaky-cam effects of Gary Ross), which may please those looking for the dystopic film to just keep moving, even if it seems to skip some narrative steps along the way. It's certainly more energetic this time out, but not as profound, which may split some viewers, depending on what they're looking for coming in.

Katniss Everdeen, now the darling of the 12 districts of Panem after her clever victory in the annual Hunger Games, has become the unwitting catalyst for the seeds of dissent among the citizens in this totalitarian world. She and co-victor Peeta Mellark are busy going to each of the 12 districts on a Victory Tour, as they must continue with the facade of their romance, or else President Snow will lose face and will terminate not only their lives, but their loved ones' as well. As the crowds begin to show signs of defiance, Snow, who feels he had been taken for a sucker the first time around, realizes that something must be done immediately to knock down Katniss's esteem in the eyes of the people.

The solution? Hunger Games' architect Plutarch Heavensbee concocts a loophole in the Hunger Games rules that allows for a Quarter Quell, wherein every 25 years, the 24 contestants in the Games will be chosen among the previous winners, the best of the best, to fight once again to the death in the artificial jungle environment. Naturally, Katniss is chosen, and Peeta volunteers as tribute along with he., It's going to take some allies, some wits, and a whole lot of cunning to try to get out alive again this time against the most ruthless killers in the territories.

The person-on-person violence has been scaled down this time out, as most of the Hunger Games challenges involve computer-programmed "Fear Factor" perils such as poisonous fog, lightning storms, a congress of mutated baboons, manufactured tidal waves, etc. The main players don't need as much of a build-up for fans of the first film, but the new supporting players are given a bit of short shrift, as outside of maybe a one line introduction, they're just there to serve a purpose to the plot before they're out of the picture entirely.

The film's main asset is its star, Jennifer Lawrence, who can emote her way into fleshing out even the scantest of characterizations in the script. Interestingly, Katniss is the catalyst for a burgeoning revolution despite doing next-to-nothing to fan the flames herself -- a leader who never meant to lead. As for the rest of the cast, it's pretty much all one-note, no nuance the entire way, falling neatly into their predetermined archetypes -- romantic interest, comic relief, pure-heart, crafty rival, or seething wolf-like antagonist.

What's missing is the subtext that fans of the novels may be expecting regarding the nature of celebrity worship and reality television culture (oddly, the televised nature of the Hunger Games and its effect on the people of the district seems to be completely lost after the opening ceremonies in this outing). Also gone is the underlying commentary on the dangers of oppressive government influence, with its danger only embodied in President Snow and the various storm troopers who merely do his bidding. And very little is pushed forward regarding the economic imbalances caused by the haves lording over (and flaunting in front of) the have-nots. Catching Fire doles out superficial entertainment well, but even at 2.5 hours, it barely scratches the surface of what the novels are really about other than its main plot.

Catching Fire is exciting enough for fans to garner a recommendation, but looking beyond the tremendous hype for the sequel, it's a bit disappointing that the dialogue still plays at bland levels and the plotting is developed at a very basic clip, despite a few nifty (yet, in retrospect, nonsensical) reveals. As the third and final book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, is getting the two-part movie treatment, it awaits to be seen if the next adventure will return us back to the character emphasis of the first film with ample time to explore them fully, and still have space to bring out the spectacle that generates most of this sequel's crackle.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo