Film adaptations of popular books almost always suffer from having too much material to cram into one film – unless, of course, you have the luxury of spreading one book over three films. Additionally, the middle film in a trilogy typically suffers the burden of having to propel the larger story arc while also setting up the third film, but without actually resolving much within its own episode. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the crossroad where these problems meet. So while the film is entertaining and maintains the same flavor as the first film, it also feels incomplete in more ways than just the overall story.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) try to adjust to life after surviving their turn in the Hunger Games. None too happy with their defiance during the competition, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) forces the two to go on a PR blitz to all the other districts in order to appease the rising tide of rebelliousness that Katniss has inspired. The citizens, however, see through the act, so Snow is forced to turn each district into a police state, deploying armed troops to administer corporal and capital punishment. Meanwhile, a new Game Maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has taken over the next Hunger Games, which is the 75th anniversary, qualifying it as a Quarter Quell. Plutarch formulates a plan to destroy Katniss as a symbol of hope for the districts by adding a twist to the next reaping, which is when contestants are chosen. Instead of new combatants, the Quarter Quell will feature former victors, which includes Katniss and Peeta. Can they survive another turn in the Hunger Games?
Everything about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is about on par with the previous film. There isn’t much new in the way of presentation. Everything feels very familiar, from the sets to the costumes, which will be comforting to many. Unfortunately, the same stiff writing and wooden acting makes a return as well. It’s difficult to feel any kind of emotional connection when none of the actors can express anything passionately except for pain and fear. The dialogue also feels perfunctory, but that’s probably due to attempting to convey as much information as possible to audiences.
If anything, Catching Fire feels more intimate – or claustrophobic, perhaps – than the previous film. The scenes feel smaller and more enclosed. Even the new arena seems to have less square footage. Katniss doesn’t leave the center for more than a few minutes before she and Peeta are running into force fields. A more intimate film isn’t a bad choice, but it does sometimes fly in the face of the sweeping epicness of the overall story.
The biggest issue with the film is that there is a lot going on – maybe too much for one film. Katniss is in a tough spot romantically, caught between her battlefield romance with Peeta and her more organic love with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The districts are inspired and emboldened by Katniss, causing civil unrest and a very heavy-handed military pushback. Then, of course, there’s the Quarter Quell and all of the interesting combatants, each with backgrounds and characteristics that deserve to be explored. Unfortunately, nothing in Catching Fire is really developed or resolved in a satisfying manner. Katniss’ love triangle seems like a situation that all parties are willing to accept because of their situation. Most of what happens in the districts are shown in short news items or simply described in dialogue. And the combatants in the Quarter Quell die off fairly quickly or are simply written out of the film despite receiving intriguing introductions. As such, Catching Fire seems like one big setup for the ending of the series rather than a satisfying work unto itself.
On the other hand, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire doesn’t necessarily disappoint, because the first film already set up the expectations for the rest of the series. Audiences won’t be expecting much from this film, and rightfully so. The drama is only passable, as is the action. The kills and violence are largely bloodless, and most of the deaths lack any kind of emotional core. Even the one death that’s highlighted is a character with no lines and no real name given. Alas. The only compelling reason to watch Catching Fire is because the end of the series won’t make sense without knowing what happened in this episode. Therefore, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will end up being a film audiences have to watch, not want to.