The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, being both a welcome surprise and a disappointment. A surprise because, ultimately, it is good, and in some ways more than good, and a disappointment because the ways in which it is good are essentially carbon-copies of its predecessor. Still, they are improved carbon-copies, and if we are in the business of deciding whether Catching Fire is better than The Hunger Games, it would be a great quest to find a way in which it is not.
Certainly, director Francis Lawrence is a notable improvement over Gary Ross, and although he doesn’t create the best version of this tale, he understands how to treat a scorched-earth with a tempo that seems poetic and evocative rather than simply solemn and stoic. It is no Malick film, although the filmmakers would probably want you to think otherwise, but there is a definite sense that Lawrence understands how to link shots together with an eye for the distressing dejection of a corrupt world without ever sinking into outright miserablism. It also helps that he is a distinctly superior action director to Gary Ross, but we will get to that when the film does, namely, near the end.
In the meantime, we are subjected to a somewhat overly-complex, ungainly screenplay trying to tackle both the mega-level political machinations of the tale and the intimate, personal strife of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and puppy-dog boy (Josh Hutcherson) as they cope with the trauma and fallout of co-winning last year’s Hunger Games death competition. Meanwhile, our old friend President Snow (still an oily Donald Sutherland reminding us of his greatness well into his twilight years) deciding to corrupt this year’s already corrupted Hunger Games by making it a tournament of previous winners, knowing full well that Katniss is the only surviving female winner from District 12 and thus circumstantially the one who must compete. Previous District 12 winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is culled for the males, but puppy dog volunteers in his place. The second half of the film will detail these two trying to survive yet again in a violent competition, only this time, they are facing trained killers who have previously won, rather than, say, a bunch of kids who happened to be picked like last time.
Little of Collins’ political commentary manifests effectively in the film – it is all too confused and belabored to make much of an impact, although Jennifer Lawrence certainly tries her hardest, ably supported by a traveling circus of supporting performers including Sutherland, Harrelson, Hutcherson (who is actually completely fine here), Julianne Moore, Wes Bentley, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Jeffrey Wright. It is, as was the case with the first film, the supporting players behind the camera that save the day though, with production details and costuming taking the cake to sell the creepy-cute Capitol district yet again.
Yet again, however, the film is at its best when it devolves into a free-for-all massacre in the second half, when its thematic ambitions stop distracting from what the film does well: namely, putting a bunch of characters in mortal conflict with one another with just enough grimy immediacy that it has impact and character without ever becoming a parade-of-death. This is, again, disappointing relative to the ambitions of the material, but it doesn’t do well to criticize a film for its ambitious failures when, if we are being honest, it is succeeding in a much lower-to-the-ground way. Which, as in the original film, it is, and the murderous survival elements of Catching Fire are matched in the lowness of their ambitions by the smartness of their craft, and well-crafted anything is well-crafted anything, in the end.
To put it another way, a simple theme with a proudly cinematic interpretation is preferable to a complicated theme presented as a collection of talking heads on the screen, and if the theme is muddled in Catching Fire, the filmmaking doesn’t disappoint. What results is not as much as it could have been, but that is not the fairest criticism of a film. Catching Fire is sharp and sufficiently pointed blockbuster filmmaking, and in the end, that is all that matters.