Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.
Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.
Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.
For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.
But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.
In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.
Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).
And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).
New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.
That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).
By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.
Final Score: B+