After the 4-year debacle that was Twilight, I lost all faith that tween novels could be of any use in the film community. Hence why I had doubts going into 2012’s “The Hunger Games”, but I left mildly surprised. It was good—not great—but good enough to somewhat rebuild my crushed hopes and dreams. The next in the series, Catching Fire, came this close (you should really see how close my fingers are) to blowing my mind with a freshly refined sense of faith, but then I discovered it wasn’t ready yet to be unveiled and I sent it back to be tinkered with.
Now before you light your pitchforks and sharpen your torches, I was astoundingly impressed with the first half of Catching Fire, enough so to say it’s better than the first. Witnessing the consequences of first film, Katniss is at odds with herself as the society around her becomes fueled with rebellion.
The atmosphere is palpable, and writers Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) and director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) do an immaculate job of evoking to constant tension of the setting. This, along with gripping performances by Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson (Peeta), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) and franchise newcomer Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee) made for an emotional and intense beginning of the end.
This is exactly how the franchise needs to feel, focusing on the background politics while keeping a hearty hand on the foreground chaos. But to reiterate, that was only the first half. About ten minutes into the second half, in which President Snow (Donald Sutherland) makes Katniss, Peeta and other Games winners to go back into the jungle for another battle to the death. From here on out every moment feels like a carbon copy of the original. If déjà vu was a person they’d go, “Hmm, there should be a word for stuff like this.”
Just like last time there’s the analysis of the other opponents, talks of how can really be trusted, the rolling out of the challengers for interviews by the exuberant Caeser Flickman (Stanley Tucci), and of course the grand chariot rides. Everything looks much prettier than before, but there’s little reward given I already saw it a year and a half ago.
Then there’s the unleashing of the competitors in the tropical arena, beginning in a race for some weapons. Even though the implications and significance behind the games are much more mysterious, again, it all feels like the first Hunger Games, and even begins to feel like two completely different movies. I almost don’t have an opinion of it because I already reviewed the first film, and much of what happens there applies.
This would have been forgiven had there been a focus on the consequences of putting Katniss and Co. back to slaughter, laying out the groundwork for the setting of future installments. But all of the focus is put in the forest and Katniss, with Peeta given nothing else to do put get hurt and have to be carried around all the time.
Not to say all of this makes for a bad time. Just like the first movie there’s plenty of excitement in the set pieces with director Lawrence and his team doing the best they can to keep things lively. Jena Malone brings a spark to axe-wielding competitor Johanna when everyone else around her hangs out in the background trying to blend in.
But I was still too disappointed despite all that was good about this part of the movie, and I put the blame not on the filmmakers but on the source material. The novelization of Catching Fire is considered by most to be the worst of the trilogy, and it’s easy to see why. Author Suzanne Collins had a clear outline for how everything should begin and end, but not the middle bit. So she went back to what she knew: Innocent people trying to butcher each other in the woods. Sure, there are different underlying themes this time, but they don’t truly shine through the trees. But it’s okay, we all liked the first one, right? Let’s just do that again! My friend left the theater for about 15 minutes and when he returned he asked if he missed anything, “Oh, just more people died.”
Then it ends with Katniss figuring out what the plan was all along, Peeta was supposedly captured and her District was destroyed. All of that happens in about 30 seconds, the last two we don’t even see occur. That dramatic, dark, nail-biting tone has been diminished by sentence long explanations. Probably because they needed plenty of material for the next one, and showing too much at the end would take away about half of it.
To work out all the plot points and fixings for a series like this would be terribly hard. A violent, fear mongering government about to be rebelled against by the very society they are trying to scare, all marketed and tweens. It’s a genius idea, and Catching Fire does its best to make it all as powerful and it needs to be, and it succeeds gloriously 50% of the time. But the other half feels like a lazy retread with little being done to make it feel necessary, and an end that’s too abrupt with little foundation to validate its cliffhanger. But I got what I wanted and the fans will get what they want and it does an amazing / good job at both. Too bad they feel like completely different movies.