The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Image: Lionsgate.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Image: Lionsgate.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Dir. Francis Lawrence
***

Traditionally, the middle act of a trilogy is the ‘dark’ chapter. It’s where things go from bad to worse, where all hope seems lost before the inevitable upbeat denouement comes along in part three. In this respect, it’s fair to say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire delivers, as it impressively manages to take a film about children being forced to literally murder each other for the purpose of entertainment, and make things even bleaker. That’s no mean feat.

One year after surviving their ordeals in the titular games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are struggling to adapt to their newfound celebrity status, in addition to finding it difficult to maintain the fabricated love affair that saved them by winning over the public. Not only that, but the pair’s defiance of the powers that be has sparked the beginnings of a revolution in Catching Fire’s world of Panem, which naturally hasn’t gone down too well with the nation’s tyrannical President Snow (a magnificently bearded Donald Sutherland).

In order to quell the nascent uprising and eliminate the former champions – now seen as beacons of hope for the revolutionaries – Sutherland’s dapper despot takes advantage of the Hunger Games’ conveniently timed 75th anniversary to arrange a sort of ‘greatest hits’ edition of the tournament, in which the contestants are comprised entirely of previous winners. Is the scenario contrived? Absolutely. Does that matter? For the most part, no.

Francis Lawrence takes over directing duties from Gary Ross on this occasion, providing a safe pair of hands and, more importantly, doing away with the overwhelming shaky camera that plagued the series’ first instalment. It’s a good thing too, because Panem is an aesthetically striking place. From the snowy wilderness of District 12, to the Capitol’s grotesque opulence, to the lush tropics of the Hunger Games arena, Catching Fire is nothing if not visually distinctive.

The film’s cast list also benefits from some excellent additions; including sinister new games master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and haughty former champion Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). Indeed, besides the always-fantastic Lawrence, Claflin provides perhaps the film’s most interesting and nuanced performance, his character steadily revealing the multiple layers beneath his conceited exterior as the action progresses.

There are issues, however. Several characters are introduced as potential rivals and allies, only to take an arrow to the chest or be savaged by baboons almost immediately. It’s difficult to care much, one way or the other, about a dramatic death when the film allows zero opportunity for investment in the character in question.

At just shy of two and half hours Catching Fire is long too, and its uneven pacing grates. The film’s extended introduction spends significantly more time out in the districts of Panem, away from the gaudy energy of the Capitol, and while it does a good job at establishing the context for the events at hand, it feels protracted, especially in comparison to the frantic conclusion – there’s an awful lot of hunger before you get to the games.

There’s also an inherent sense of familiarity in the film’s narrative structure. We witness another reaping; Stanley Tucci conducts more entertainingly staged interviews; and Katniss and Peeta set their clothes on fire in the pre-Games procession… again. The effects are glossier this time around, and the sets more lavish, but the novelty has worn off somewhat.

Formulaic as it is though, Catching Fire remains an undeniably compelling watch, particularly in its breathless final act. It’s just a shame it takes so long to get there. Filled with superb performances but held back by an unfortunate case of blockbuster bloat, the Hunger Games sequel sparks intermittently, but it never quite ignites.

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