The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Catching Fire is an entertaining if ultimately frustrating middle chapter in the Hunger Games saga. Picking up a few weeks(?) after where The Hunger Games left off, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are forced to take the customary tour of dystopian Panem (a.k.a. the US in a couple hundred years) in order to superficially honor the kids who had tried to kill them. Over the course of their journey, Katniss becomes aware of a growing nationwide dissent inspired by her rebellious act that led to the first-ever tie in the Games.

Panem's coolly evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is also aware of this dissent. Hoping to stave off a revolution, Snow takes a multi-pronged approach to negating Katniss's influence. And as the audience wonders, "Really? He can't just kill her and let his propaganda forces play out a different story?" - this totalitarian government is frankly kind of inept - Snow finally assents to the devious plan of the Games' new programmer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who suggests dooming Katniss in a special "all-champion" edition of the Hunger Games.

Catching Fire works best when it depicts both the hardscrabble life in Panem's colonies and the shocking abuses of the government. When the new Games begin, however, it all feels like a rehash of its predecessor, except that since this tournament is fought entirely by adults, it's drained of the disturbing teens-killing-teens angle that gave the first film its edge.

In fact, the Games this time around feel a little slack; the "bad" competitors, nicknamed the "Careers", are given no time to develop, and in fact we barely even see them. So they never pose a real threat. Instead, Katniss and Peeta are left wondering whether the ragtag veterans who have befriended them are their true allies, or if, in the end, it really will be a last man (or woman) standing scenario. There's suspense here, but story mechanics leave it ultimately muted.

As you know, with another book in the saga left to cover - spread out across two more films, of course, as is the current fad of milking moviegoers for as much money as possible - Catching Fire ends on a massive, TV-like cliffhanger. That makes me envious of those folks who, in a couple of years, can just binge-watch the entire series at once. But there's also a twist at the conclusion that, though I won't give it away, epitomizes one of my biggest peeves with contemporary screenplays.

You see, this twist relies on so much happening precisely as planned that, just as I wonder why President Snow doesn't simply "disappear" his gloomy young nemesis, I also wonder why these other powers-that-be force Katniss to jump through so many hoops, as the end results could have been achieved in a much easier way - though of course we wouldn't have had a movie. (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I liked, had the same problem.)

Catching Fire is still satisfyingly dark and highly imaginative, and of course I can't wait to see the next two films to find out what happens. The special effects and production values are definitely better than they were in the lower-budgeted Hunger Games, and director Francis Lawrence (no relation to his star) proves to be capable, though hardly exceptional. Nevertheless, Suzanne Collins, on whose novels this series is based, remains the MVP.