With its twelve impoverished Districts kept in line by the Capitol through a televised game-show where young tributes fight to the death, The Hunger Games, captured the imagination of cinema-goers to become the third best selling film at the US box office last year.
Yet where The Hunger Games resonated with our current thirst for talent shows, sparked with originality and tapped into a strong emotional undercurrent, its sequel, Catching Fire, fails to shine as brightly.
This second installment sees Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and fellow winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) embark on a winner’s tour of the Districts. The lover’s attempted suicide pact that brought an end to the previous Games is viewed by the Districts as a sign of defiance and promptly insights rebellion against the Capitol. In order to regain control, Capitol President, Snow (Donald Sutherland), plots to use the seventy-fifth Games, or quarter quell, to pit previous winners against each other and annihilate Katniss.
It’s a strong premise but the real problem with Catching Fire is a limited script that recycles too many ideas from the first film.
Slow to get started, Catching Fire’s first act centres on unrest within the Districts. The bravery of the oppressed and the violent response of the Capitol is convincing. It marks an interesting divergence from first movie and makes this by far the most engrossing part of the second adventure. Director, Francis Lawrence (Water For Elephants, I Am Legend) - who is also set to direct the series’ final two films - chillingly captures the uprising as it builds, from subtle glimpses of rebellious graffiti to brutal public beatings.
Meanwhile, unrelenting moodiness from Katniss and Peeta in the wake of their win feels more like something like from Twilight’s sullen love triangle than the psychological damage that the script bluntly pokes at. Lawrence gives us another spirited performance as Katniss negotiates televised game-show interviews and grief induced speeches to the Districts whose tributes were killed. But, for the first time, Lawrence’s commanding performance falters as too little emphasis is placed on Katniss’ social deficiencies and the subtle exploration of her character is lost.
When the quarter quell Games finally do get going, the result is frustrating. In an attempt to recapture his audience in the Districts, President Snow manipulates the Games more than ever before. Conversely these exaggerated scenarios make for a cheesier, less surprising viewing experience for movie-goers. Despite audiences having even more investment in Katniss this time around, the Games lack a sincere emotional angle. Instead Catching Fire frequently veers into melodrama in an effort to outdo its predecessor. Catching Fire just can’t escape the feeling that we’ve been here before.
Adding to this disappointment, the seasoned tributes are given a series of odd traits - one contestant has filed teeth so she can rip out throats - rather than more convincing or appealing attributes. Yet, after drawing our attention to them, these character peculiarities are swiftly forgotten and the tributes become contrastingly bland and disposable - the survivors are barely affected by each inevitable death. Even drunken former winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) has his rough edges polished off and is fashioned into someone altogether more generic.
As key scenes from the first film are re-hashed - from Katniss’ archery training, the tribute parade and chaotic burst for weapons - the spark of originality that made The Hunger Games so captivating is gone. Yet Catching Fire manages to hold itself together long enough to deliver the trilogy’s crucial plot developments.
A slow start and abrupt finish teamed with a melodramatic Games make Catching Fire feel like filler. A longwinded opening to the closing story this might be, but there are bursts of attention grabbing material here. Don’t miss Stanley Tucci steal the show as Hunger Games presenter Caesar Flickerman, reigniting the comedic, pointed satire that propelled the first movie.
Running Time: 146 minutes