by Bob Garver
Nov. 25, 2013. I wish I could be more supportive of “The Hunger Games.” Here is a blockbuster franchise that has nothing to do with superheroes, nor does it contain tired recent tropes like wizards or vampires. I’m all ready to endorse the strong heroine of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and I’m intrigued by the society that watches intently each year as teenagers battle to the death as a sacrifice to a corrupt government. But something always seems to go wrong in the execution of these films that prevents me from enjoying them or being able to recommend them.
“Catching Fire” picks up six months after the events of 2012’s “The Hunger Games.” Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned as champions to District 12, though the dual nature of their victory does not sit well with the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). They embark on a tour of the other districts and can’t help but notice that a rebellious spirit has swept the nation. Snow always allowed the Games to have one winner so the population would live with a glimmer of hope for their own future, but apparently two winners (which means 22 dead participants instead of 23) gives them too much hope. Snow believes that the former winners have too much power as celebrities, so he decides that the next Hunger Games will have nothing but winners tearing each other apart. Katniss is once again chosen to represent District 12 and Peeta is back in as well, volunteering to take the place of mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).
A bunch of familiar faces are back. The ghoulish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is still the team’s chaperone. The tender Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) remains Katniss’ loyal stylist. Katniss once again greatly misses her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and sister Prim (Willow Shields). And the Games’ preshow coverage is again handled by emcee Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), who in the first film added an element of delightfully twisted showmanship to the proceedings, now his lightheartedness suggests that he’s too dumb to comprehend the consequences of the Games.
There are new characters too, which is no surprise given the high turnover in the deadly Games. There is, for example, first-time Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who basically serves as a director for the atmosphere of the Games. Other contestants include the outspoken Johanna (Jena Malone), pretty boy Finnick (Sam Claflin), and the genius Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). I was extremely disappointed by Wright, who usually gives movie-stealing performances, here cruising by as a nerd caricature.
A few decent scenes take place before the announcement of the new Games (just try to get through Katniss’ eulogy for Rue without sniffling), and a few take place as the characters prepare for the Games (I’ll admit I snorted with laughter at a lie Peeta tells to try to get the Games cancelled), but of course these movies are all about the Games themselves. And what underwhelming Games they are this time. The violence is even more neutered than before, but the real problem is that most of it doesn’t come at the hands of the contestants. Plutarch made the venue so dangerous that people die without anyone killing them, which defeats the whole purpose of the Games.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is the second part of a four-part film series (the book series is a trilogy, but the films will continue the recent trend of splitting the last book into two parts). There’s still hope for this franchise; it has a good cast, a unique setting, and plenty of interesting elements. I just hope that next year’s “Mockingjay – Part 1” has something more interesting for the characters to do than fight in a soulless new Hunger Games.