The Hunger Games is a distinctly modern phenomenon, a piece of teen-lit turned blockbusting film franchise chronicling a dystopian near future of class wars and ritualistic Murderbowls. Whilst the first cinematic iteration of the series was rightfully praised for its strong female lead and a refreshing departure from the drippy norms usually targeted at teenagers, it never quite escaped that moniker of “Battle Royale with cheese.”
Its sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, fails to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor. And yet, there’s something strangely special about it. Bigger it may be, and arguably no better, but still, this is popcorn entertainment the way it should be made.
Once more we are dropped firmly in the muddied boots of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), fresh from her victory in The Hunger Games (an annual fight to the death in which the upper classes pit children from the lower orders against one another in a kind of blood-fueled anti-Marxist nightmare). As opposed to immediately opening on the idealistic and daring deeds of the good guys, the film initially takes a refreshingly cynical stance as Katniss and her fellow champion Peta (Josh Hutcherson) are hurled into a lifestyle dictated by media manipulation and political spin. It is of course evident that this isn’t going to last, and with the appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stoney-faced new Games commissioner, it is only going to be a matter of time before Katniss is thrown back into the arena.
The first thing that really struck me about Catching Fire was its chronic unevenness. There is well over an hour of rhetoric and world-building before the prospect of the Games is even raised, which – whilst initially interesting – begins to drag and leaves the film’s near two and a half hour runtime looking bloated and indulgent.
The pacing here is all over the place. The rushed ending is borderline comical and far too much time is spent trying to postulate heavy themes – all issues that could have been solved with a less sparing attitude to editing. As it is, the movie feels oversized and often confused. However, when it does kick into gear, it often becomes an utter joy. There are some genuinely interesting concepts floating around in there and when the latest round of the titular Games eventually arrives, it’s so utterly ridiculous (complete with raining blood and murderous howler monkeys) that it takes a joyless disposition not to have a good time.
The excessive amount of time spent fleshing out the dystopia could have been somewhat justified were it a fully realized vision, but the cinematic half of the Hunger Games universe feels confused as to just what it wants to be. The costumes worn by the upper echelons are a hilariously nightmarish cross of Terry Gilliam and Vivienne Westwood, implying a bizarreness that just isn’t present in their surroundings. We are instead thrown dull and poorly CGI’d cityscapes (yet another issue plaguing the first film that hasn’t been rectified) and occasional flashes of eccentricity that more often than not feel shoehorned in for a cheap laugh. Truly great fantasy worlds require a cohesion unfortunately lacking in this franchise. What’s the point of crafting such a massive vision if the basic building blocks won’t fit together?
Whilst Lawrence is magnetic as ever, both she and her fellow cast members struggle with a script that is too poorly written to convey much of its thematic power. Many of the dialogue exchanges feel awkward and the characterization of peripheral figures is paper-thin and highlighted somewhat comically when the fellow Games competitors are introduced as if they were video game bosses, each possessing a single trait and nothing else. This unfortunately isn’t aided by an incredibly defined sense of right and wrong – you are either a good guy or a bad guy, there are no moral grey areas, which is a shame for a film that is otherwise quite ideologically complex.
The Hunger Games franchise seems to demand an affection for its characters that I just don’t have. They’re too bland and the dialogue is too clunky for me to really get involved. As for the love triangle between Lawrence, Hutcherson and the incredibly wooden Liam Hemsworth, I struggle to see why Katniss holds any kind of affection for either of them as they’re both utterly dull.
It may sound like I’m getting down on the film, but at the same time there is still so much to admire about the franchise. I will be the first to admit I love a good slice of popcorn entertainment, and Catching Fire is a rather unique slice at that. The fact that a film blending Marxist doctrine and Rollerball is being targeted at pre-teens is both phenomenal and admirable. Obviously the popularity of the novels all but guaranteed success, but it’s still nice to think that in an era populated by PG-13 Hollywood-produced drudge, that something this madcap slipped through the cracks. The opening throes’ emphasis on pragmatism over idealism, the second act’s shift into the (literally) bloody ridiculous and the frankly bizarre ending all serve to make The Hunger Games: Catching Fire one of the most out-there mainstream flicks in years. If nothing else, it’s not a film you’re going to forget easily.
Equally, in spite of all its troughs, Catching Fire also holds some captivating peaks. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a sinister joy during his brief appearance and there are some brilliant scenes to behold. The sight of our heroes scrabbling away from a blanket of poisonous fog lingers especially strong in the mind. Catching Fire is more a film of moments than a cohesive whole – think of it as a melting pot of ideas where plenty of stuff doesn’t quite work.
That being said, I’d much rather see a semi-failed grand vision than something put together by a committee over lunch. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not a great movie, and in many ways it’s not even a good one, but whenever it threatens to fall to pieces there’s always something brilliant to pull it back together.
It takes its time to get going, but The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is – if nothing else – a joyous and unique bit of mainstream cinema. Brooding and bonkers in equal measure, an uneven plot and hammy script are redeemed in a wave of grand concepts and monkeys with violent dispositions. Too long in some parts, too short in others, there’s no denying the film’s flaws. But all in all, there’s also no denying that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
My thoughts on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire can be summed up as such: Bigger? Yes. Better? Not really. Bonkers? Absolutely.