Movie Review: Catching Fire

CF posterLionsgate’s second installment in the series based on the young adult fiction literary series by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, is not as satisfying as the first movie, which I reviewed here. The film, a two and a half hour episode titled Catching Fire, is too static. There are fine moments, scenes and themes – how could there not be with the West being on track toward dictatorship and the studio bringing on top talent to create this movie? – but the story is promised more than it is delivered.

Catching Fire is transitional, given the planned and hyped four-picture deal, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t stand on its own. Here, writers Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), directed by Francis Lawrence (the atrocious I Am Legend), whom I suspect is partly the cause of the problems, take too long and convey too little. It’s not a bad movie. Fans will want to see it and should. But it is lacking in key parts.

Catching Fire fails to depict the full grip, scope and magnitude of totalitarianism. This pervaded the first picture in the capable hands of director Gary Ross. The death cannon lingered. Gray skies closed in. Every part of every person’s existence reeked of control by the state. By shifting focus to the personal after-story of heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence again), who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological damage, the feeling of the dystopia’s chronic, constant control is dissipated. All the players return and they’re in fine form as Katniss is threatened and ordered back to the death hunt in an all-star, prior victor “Quell”. But a subtle approach by Gary Ross is replaced with more generic, overstuffed direction. This film is less cohesive.

Without a strong, integrated theme of oppression, the story’s rising demand for revolt feels unearned, episodic and tacked on. Action happens too fast. Relationships are abbreviated. Too much is stuffed. The need for revolt is taken for granted.

With so much going on, as hunting partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, who is very good) steps up again, too, one gets a sense that society should be moving toward revolution in an organic, grass-roots movement to quell – a term which originates with kill – the totalitarian state. And there are signs of rising opposition, such as when an old man defiantly whistles a tune or the people of District 12 unite to voice support for the good. These moments, and counterbalancing scenes of brutality, such as slave-whipping and black-bagging people’s heads, are well done. They drive Catching Fire in the first hour. The power of ignition is even in the government’s torching of people’s private property.

So we should see sparks. Beyond the deepening bond between the leads, we don’t.

Katniss is too caught up in PTSD, despite tender moments with her true love Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her sister Prim, who has observed her sister’s acts of bravery and chooses to act on what she’s learned. The government’s monopoly on the use of force and constant threat to use it is spoken more than depicted, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) personally confronting Katniss. In spite of missing elements, by the time the Quell gets underway, with predictable developments and usual Capitol freaks in tow, we’re ready to witness an unwinnable game and hungry for the rise of the resistance.

The game comes with a new batch of misfits. Here, too, there are good scenes. Director Lawrence is more comfortable expressing the script in action sequences than in depicting the cause of the action – rule by brute force – in all its insidiousness. Giant waves and lightning strikes are more interesting to the director than the forces behind both – statism – which diminishes the power of the writing. In one crucial scene, an old woman demonstrates without words how love of life is what matters – more than life itself – and the theme that the old and young are interlinked in camaraderie against the omnipotent state, as both persecuted groups are in reality under the fascist ObamaCare, filters through Catching Fire. The best aspects are muted by excessive, nonessential material.

Jeffrey Wright portrays an intelligent character in the jungle-set game. His character figures out a key point that could alter the course of history and power the revolution. It’s a metaphysical fact that he abstracts and, as played in the picture, it’s brilliant and original. Even better is his character’s insight that the state-sponsored “Quell was written into law by men – and, certainly, it can be unwritten.” This goes to the core of what satiates about this series: the individual transforming government-dictated hunger into hunger for rebellion, revolt and resurgence for life. However, the revolutionary theme is treated as a twist, not as a logical swell of the Wright character’s radical philosophy.

What might have been another work of art comes off as synthetic, like the artificial arena where people are pitted against one another – another metaphor for the deathtrap ObamaCare – and forced to fight for life. The story of one woman’s revolt against tyranny advances in Catching Fire. This time, it is less powerful.