Catching fire? And about time too. The Hunger Games, last year’s adaptation of a young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, made a lot of money but never really clicked as a movie. The Games themselves – in which various youngsters fought to the death for the delectation of a live-TV audience – lacked edge and plausible plotting, the script was half-baked, the whole thing felt safe and pre-packaged. I looked forward to the franchise ‘catching fire’ in this sequel, and the glowing reviews it’s received (especially in the US) suggested it was mission accomplished – but in fact The Hunger Games continues to underachieve, and for much the same reasons as in the first film. Not only are the Games uninspired, but the plot collapses if you think about it too much (or indeed at all).
Catching Fire dwells a lot more on the horrors of Panem, the totalitarian state run by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The 74th Hunger Games are now over, so Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) go on the traditional Victor’s Tour, wending their way through Panem’s 12 districts – but rebellion’s in the air, and our heroes know it and President Snow also knows it. He believes Katniss and other, older Victors are becoming symbols of hope and defiance, and inciting the people to revolution. He believes the whole breed should be quietly exterminated – but his new Head of Hunger Games (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has another idea: “There’s a way we can still win,” he claims. “It’s what we Games makers like to call a wrinkle”.
His ‘wrinkle’ is to make the 75th Hunger Games open to past Victors only – meaning Katniss and Peeta are forced back into action, once again having to kill or be killed (though in fact, as in the first film, neither protagonist ends up with blood on their hands). This wrinkle is handy for the franchise, avoiding the ‘children killing children’ controversy that briefly afflicted the first film (all contestants are now adults) – but in fact it’s ridiculous. If the Victors are becoming heroes to the people, why put them in the Hunger Games which turn the players into celebrities? At best, getting killed will make them martyrs. At worst, there’s the very real danger that Victors will use the Games – which are beamed out across the 12 districts – to broadcast anti-Snow messages, or even band together and refuse to fight. After all, unlike the desperate young people who usually compete, the Victors are famous and powerful; it’s not clear what leverage the State has to force them into killing each other.
Hoffman claims that “the whole idea of revolution will be discredited” once the people see their heroes at each other’s throats – but, if so, the obvious strategy would be for Snow and Co. to sit back and let things unfold, whereas in fact almost all the dangers (a poisonous fog, killer baboons, a tidal wave, an invisible force-field) come from the organisers rather than fellow players. It’s scary to see how completely the juvenile-gladiator element (the only daring idea in the franchise) has been emasculated; the second half of Catching Fire is a rather generic, bloodless adventure with only a wisp of moral uneasiness. Friends don’t turn on each other (even Toy Story 3 offered more ambivalence), the deaths mostly take place offscreen, and they’re mostly people we don’t even know. Strangest of all, the reaction of the TV audience – surely the most important thing, so we can see if the ‘wrinkle’ is working or not – is never shown. The Games might as well not be happening on TV at all.
Even on a surface level, Catching Fire is a mixed bag. The film moves well, and the 146 minutes fly by – but the Katniss-Peeta relationship never ignites (the claim that their romance is a sham looks entirely plausible), the only amusing aspect being how completely gender roles are reversed. A warrior woman is no surprise at this point, and Katniss is appropriately steely – but Peeta is a damsel in distress, a virtuous boy who bakes cookies (you’ll “never deserve that boy,” Katniss is told) and must be preserved and protected. Hutcherson is wooden in the role, which is fair enough, but I seem to be alone in not enjoying Jennifer Lawrence much either; her range seems increasingly narrow, her style is severe, and her puffy-cheeked look – like a more dangerous Renee Zellweger – works against expressiveness.
But the real problem with The Hunger Games, as already mentioned, are the actual Hunger Games, which are neither convincing nor sufficiently edgy. The ending of Catching Fire offers hope in that respect, a cliffhanger twist which not only makes the film more plausible in retrospect but also seems to promise no Games in the inevitable threequel (a two-parter titled Mockingjay, Part 1 coming out next year). Maybe this soggy franchise can finally catch fire after all.
DIRECTED BY Francis Lawrence
STARRING Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland
US 2013 146 mins