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“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
144 Mins
PG-13

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Katniss Everdeen may be the girl on fire and Jennifer Lawrence may be Hollywood hot stuff (du jour), but this second installment of The Hunger Games is only slightly smoldering. In fact, the embers have already started to go cold. All the requisite franchise pieces are there to stoke the billion dollar conflagration this dystopian blockbuster is sure to light, but the overwhelming feeling that there is little spark behind the bark leaves us chilled to all this talk of fire.

Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned “safely” from the 74th Hunger Games but now they face the red hot wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who’s now breathing down their necks. Their final act of near-berry-gobbling defiance in the last film has led to stirrings of revolution across the districts. Through Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself to preserve her moral scruples, the country stands newly empowered. Unwittingly, Katniss has located a kink in the armor of Snow’s totalitarian society and must now suffer the price.

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The seeds of hope Katniss and Peeta have planted, Snow plans to stomp out. He supposes that the country’s cautious optimism towards a new tomorrow can be quelled if Katniss and Peeta maintain the facade of their romance. By making them one of his own kind, they will become symbols of corruption – a constantly broadcast morphing into the upper class. But all of this is predicated on their selling their “true love” like it’s Oprah Winfrey coach hour. Anything that would even suggest their affection is a muse would be the equivalent of open rebellion and would lead Snow to “take care of” both Katniss and Peeta’s families mobster style. When Snow realizes that the country may not turn against the star-crossed apples of their eye, he launches a new scheme that will pit them, and former victors, again each other again. 

In spite of these constant death threats, Catching Fire lacks breathless moments of white knuckle suspense. No matter how many times the dialogue, aided by Sutherland’s ripe delivery, insist that Katniss and her loved ones are teetering on the precipice of danger, there is little to convince us that anyone could actually be offed. In a franchise like this, everyone is too padded to actually face death. No harm will last more than a few hours, no scar will be too deep to heal. We know Katniss has no expiration date as the franchise train booms towards a fourth film and so any threat towards her – or her cohort’s – life feels paper thin.

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And while the first film held a flicker of filmmaking as rebellion, everything about this one screams studio control and designed realism. It all feels so reined in, so calculated in its darkness, and so badly wanting to break free of its PG-13 constraints that it can’t help but lose track of the meaning behind the books. In trying to reel in the masses (and their wallets), Catching Fire as Hollywood product is almost exactly what “Catching Fire” as commentary rages against – turning its back on the central message of stoic individualism against the oppressive tyranny of the elite. The hand of the studio is omnipresent – although hardly malevolent – and there seems to be little to no room for creative flair in the directorial department. Again, big business trumps individual spirit.

Sorely missing is Gary Ross’s urgent camerawork and tight closeups that gave The Hunger Games such a sense of realism. Instead of jammed close in on character’s faces and sharing in their ghastly horror, we feel distant, an observer. With edge-of-your-seat scenes largely tabled, Francis Lawrence goes for something much more horrific – a near 12 Years a Slave for kids. One scene depicting poisonous fog is particularly distressing and uncharacteristically grim for a film of this rating. On the brink of being “too dark,” there is little artistry behind the darkness that feels more like “gritty per popular demand.”

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Shying away from the close quarters, almost independent film-esque combat of the first flick, the violence in Catching Fire is staged like the many CGI heavy blockbusters of late. Much violence take place offscreen, in a wide zoom, or in rapid, random bursts, making death almost as inconsequential as it is in a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie. While the first film saw Katniss struggling with the murder of other children, this film sees her adversaries stripped of that very feature that made their slaughter so perverse and unsettling in the first place. Instead, these adult competitors become faceless baddies in another adventure film.

This franchise middle-child also suffers a pretty rough case of inbetweener syndrome, where it only works within the context of a larger story and not as a standalone film. While it propels what began in the first film into the coming finale, it lacks the finesse of a great middler. Without the pure adrenaline of The Two Towers and the tonal twists and turns of Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire just carries on the torch, readying it for the next billion dollar installment. Although the bleak-o-meter has been cranked up, the stakes remain largely the same: do or die. 

As sets the gears to full throttle for the inevitable two-part conclusion, we ask, “Haven’t we seen this all before?” The skies have darkened and life on Panem is more unbearable than ever but for all the barrels of darkness and grit-drenched scenery, there is familiarity to this racetrack of escalation that we’ve seen in greater franchises (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter).

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But for all of my complaints and griping, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a smarter than average blockbuster. It’s hard to finger where the $140+ million budget went – none of the special effects are noteworthy – but hopefully most of it is going towards the performers, as they continue to be the strongest selling point of this franchise. However, it’s the supporting characters who outshine the love-locked trio. Stanley Tucci is simply a riot (and possibly the best part of the film) and Elizabeth Banks is as wacky and invisible in her character as ever. Even Woody Harrelson‘s haunted alcoholic Haymitch has more depth than before and seems to be more commited to the emotional toil of his role than many of his co-stars. And however lackluster some of the CGI is, the set design gives us a rock solid sense of place and tone.

Finally, fans of the source material will have little to complain about since the book is adapted to the T. But when all is said and done, it’s just not a terribly exciting movie and one which I don’t expect to return to. Really feeling the sting of its “part of a whole” status, Catching Fire is better at blowing smoke than fanning the flames. 

C+

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