The highs are higher in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment of a futuristic Young Adult film franchise. Director Francis Lawrence, who is especially good with sequences tinged with demonic and/or zombie-ish elements — see, in part, Constantine and I Am Legend — crafts a couple of standout sequences that are dazzlingly memorable.
Of course, then there’s the rest of the movie, which is unable to disguise its function as lengthy, connective narrative tissue between the first episode and the forthcoming third and fourth chapters. According to someone I spoke with afterward, the film does a more than adequate job of summarizing Suzanne Collins’ novel of the same name. But it’s much less successful in fleshing out the lead characters, or in doing much more than demonstrating that supporting players have an important role, too, in the outworking of the plot.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her friend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the victors in the previous year’s fight-to-the-death competition known as The Hunger Games, have returned home to the struggling District 12, but they are uncomfortable in their celebrity. For one thing, Katniss faked a romantic interest in Peeta — in reality, Katniss has a thing for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) — which leaves the love-struck Peeta moping and moaning.
For another, Katniss now knows for a certainty that the Games are a sham, and the totalitarian government, located in the metropolis known as The Capitol, will stop at nothing to maintain its iron-fest rule over the people of the neighboring 12 districts. (All the action takes place in Panem, a nation created in the continent formerly known as North America after an apocalyptic event.) The government is well-represented by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who exudes contempt for what remains of humanity outside his household.
The film is divided almost evenly between events that take place shortly before the next edition of The Hunger Games, and the Games themselves. The lengthy set-up establishes once again that the people outside The Capitol are unhappy with their government, and that the Tributes themselves, as the competitors (drawn by lot) are known, are not happy either.
The Games are where director Lawrence manifests a more exciting approach to the action than Gary Ross, who helmed the first film. Lawrence, cinematographer Jo Willems (Limitless, 30 Days of Night), and editor Alan Edward Bell ((500) Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man), work together to give the running and chasing and fighting a sense of dark urgency; it’s not that the action is any more comprehensible than before, it’s that there are more pursuits and escapes to track, which lend themselves to greater clarity — and thus more excitement. Whether that’s straight from the source material or an adjustment by credited screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn (aka Michael Arndt), it’s a noticeable improvement.
If someone is looking for a well-crafted slab of blockbuster visual entertainment The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will likely satisfy the appetite. To its credit, it continues to touch on fundamental issues of personal freedom and governmental responsibility. Too bad it chooses to offer no more than a lightly-baked appetizer on those topics. Those will crave something more will go away hungry.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, November 22.