Looking back on the story arc of Catching Fire leaves one wondering where the hell the rest of the film is. For all its flash and grandiosity, not much really happens, and it leaves very little to ponder beyond how we got suckered into making this series the phenomenon that it now is. Maybe that’s because, like the first Hunger Games, about halfway through, the characters are again thrust into an unsatisfying fight-to-the-death which contributes relatively nothing to the film’s already convoluted narrative, and manages to be about as thrilling as a group of toddlers playing hide-and-seek in the backyard.
Director Francis Lawrence takes over directing duties, surpassing the lackluster Gary Ross, and he provides more edge to the action, while handling the drama with a subtler touch, focusing on some interesting details the first film glazed over in its broad-strokes approach, and yet he still turns out a film that couldn’t accurately be described as better than average. If Lawrence, whose films include I Am Legend, and Water For Elephants, has a trademark as a director, it’s that he makes a great first half that is negated by the absolute mediocrity of the second, and while Catching Fire‘s narrative woes can hardly be ascribed to him, it nevertheless falls in line with his seeming lack of follow-through.
Catching Fire brings us a Katniss haunted by her experiences from the previous film, already making it a better film than its predecessor, which failed immeasurably to explore the inner battle of any of its characters, and chickened out on its most interesting dynamic: that of two flirty pseudo-lovers placed into a situation in which they bond, just before they will have to kill each other.
Also furthering Catching Fire‘s apparent narrative superiority is a visit from President Snow, who, fearing Katniss’ influence and potential to lead an uprising (the reasons for which are beyond my disinterested-in-rewatching-the-sub-par-first-film ability to comprehend, as it remains largely undeveloped in this installment), coerces her through threats of violence into feigning love for Peeta, the soggy wimp charitably rescued by the cop-out, rule-change ending of the first film, on a victory tour to each district to eulogize the fallen children from each one. What was a great opportunity to get into the grit of the moral dilemma the Hunger Games force on its participants in order to “entertain the masses’ fizzles out when the pair simply become figureheads for the state.
While all of these developments are genuinely interesting, what makes Catching Fire such a bust is the way in which these scenes end up merely teasing the audience. With them Lawrence bites off more than he can chew, giving us a taste of the bigger ideas that lie within the series’ high concept dystopian future while never actually doing anything with them. And that’s the biggest problem I see: we’re introduced to this world and its strange traditions, and very little of it is actually explained; I’m left with so many questions after watching, and not the juicy moral and philosophical ones that are fun to discuss over drinks, but simple logistical questions about what is going on; after sitting through two films, I still don’t even understand exactly what the purpose of the Games is. How exactly are they a demonstration of the power of the state? They’re supposed to be a metaphor for entertaining the people into submission, but nobody seems to find them entertaining. Catching Fire has the state’s “peace-keepers” beating and murdering citizens without reason, but who are these people and why do they do such things? We don’t see any brain-wasing going on, so why does anybody obey?
The films give no indication of how this society actually functions, and I find it frustrating… Especially now that even bigger ideas are being introduced, and rather than being explored the filmmakers simply find some silly reason to throw the characters back into a fight for half the film. And again, rather than either really having them hunt each other and give us satisfying action sequences, or dig into the emotional depths of these characters as they’re forced into this, the film has its subjects breaking apart into cliques and being attacked by CGI threats, like an asinine “poison fog” or a laughable pack of baboons right up until the abrupt shock ending that leaves us with an incomplete, two act film with no story arc that feels more like an extended trailer for the next installment. Very disappointing.Powered by Sidelines