“Catching Fire” Flames Out

Reviews Catching Fire

Published on November 22nd, 2013 | by Wheeler Winston Dixon


 Grade: C

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” opened nationwide Friday, November 22.

Running time: 146 minutes; 2013 Rated PG-13
Directed by Francis Lawrence

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here, but this time around, they’re rumbling through town like an oversize freight train, intent on vacuuming up as much cash as they can, and extending the franchise if possible, before the whole thing crashes and burns in a flaming wreck. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the follow-up to last year’s “The Hunger Games,” isn’t so much a movie as a series of scenes in which cardboard characters go through a sequence of predictable paces, made even less compelling this time around because everyone knows what’s going to happen; it’s an exercise in overblown repetition.

Stalwart Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is once again pressed into service in a new round of Hunger Games, while tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) rigs the games to kill all the previous winners by pitting them against one another in a special 75th anniversary edition of the contest. This time around, Snow is assisted by the newly installed Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his “games master,” while Katniss is aided by her old cohorts Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as she readies herself for the competition, which is once again emceed by the unctuous Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his fey sidekick Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).

But things don’t go as smoothly for President Snow as they did in the initial entry of the trilogy; in fact, there’s already an insurrection brewing at the start of the film, and inevitably, the unrest snowballs until it threatens to engulf Snow’s dreams of empire.

The film is certainly elaborate enough. The production design is appropriately Riefenstahlian, the sets are grandiose and overblown, the special effects are state of the art, and the combat sequences are suitably violent for a PG-13 project, but the film never, shall we say, catches fire.

I was no fan of the initial installment in the series, which was directed by Gary Ross, and I had hoped for better things from director Francis Lawrence, who helmed this film and is now shooting the third and presumably final entry in the series. Ross’s film seemed, at the time, caricaturish and slow, but “Catching Fire” is even more leaden than its predecessor, and at 146 minutes in running time, needs cutting by at least a third.

But the big surprise for me is that the actors seem to have been left to their own devices to flesh out their roles. Sutherland, as the exquisitely corrupt Snow, was the best thing about the first film, and although he had very little screen time, he made the most of every word he uttered. In “Catching Fire,” his role has been considerably expanded, but his villainy now seems flat and forced, and rather than the restraint he displayed in the first film, here he seems to take it directly over the top.

The same can be said for nearly all of the other actors, who walk through their roles with a minimum of conviction, hitting their marks and saying their lines with robotic precision while never once giving their characters a modicum of believability. Harrelson strolls through the film, relying for the most part on his character’s alcoholism to gain some traction, while Kravitz, who was quite affecting in the first film, is reduced here to nearly a cameo guest shot. Lawrence alone attacks her part with energy and conviction, but the dragging pace and flaccid construction of the film, which takes forever to get off the ground and into the games, leaves her with little to work with.

But what’s perhaps most offensive about the film is that, like “V for Vendetta” and similarly “anti-authoritarian” mainstream films, “Catching Fire” argues for “revolution” in the face of social inequity, while at the same time actually working to support the status quo. In the future world of Panem, as in so many dystopian films going all the way back to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” the ruling class lives in decadent luxury, while the workers who support their lavish lifestyle starve and freeze in the provinces.

It’s just like the United States today; one percent of Americans now own 40 percent of the entire nation’s wealth. Ninety-nine percent of the populace work to support the ruling class, but  rather than doing anything to bring about real social change, we’re content to spend our time at the multiplex contemplating faux revolutionary tracts. Thus, the film’s “shock ending”—with its attendant message of hope for the masses—is nothing more than a sop to those who dream of such a revolution, an insurrection that will never come.

But today, apparently, comic book films like “The Dark Knight” and its ilk seem to be all we can hope for on a mass scale; the days of smaller, more thoughtful films have long since vanished with the rise of massive theater chains, nation-state movie studios, and hegemonic distribution patterns that concentrate solely on the blockbuster films at the expense of everything else.

It’s sad to note that Donald Sutherland took on the project because, as he told writer Rob Keyes, “I felt that it could be another ‘Battle of Algiers.’” It’s a long way from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film to this, but every generation gets the films it deserves, and it seems that right now, the comic book and YA crowd want simplistic visions of a dysfunctional world set right by a single heroic figure. It’s a superhero, or heroine concept that appeals to the child in all of us, even if it offers no real hope of change.

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About the Author

is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, and Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent book is "Cinema at the Margins" (Anthem Press, 2013).

3 Responses to “Catching Fire” Flames Out

  1. JK says:

    Well – I can’t wait to see it. Most reviews are strong. My favorite is from this Finnish film critic who is absolutely in love (frighteningly so) with Jennifer Lawrence. Hilarious.


  2. Wheeler Winston Dixon says:

    Yes, I know — I admire Jennifer Lawrence as an actor, and I also had some grudging admiration for Francis Lawrence as a director based on I Am Legend and Constantine — believe it or not — and I expected much better from the film. Nevertheless, everyone in the audience at the screening I attended had a similar take on the film; I never thought I would say that Gary Ross’s film is superior, but it is, in every respect. But the film is already breaking box office records worldwide, so what does it matter? Catching Fire is a certifiable phenomenon, but the franchise seems to have lost whatever energy the first film possessed. Certainly, you should see it for yourself.

  3. Wheeler Winston Dixon says:

    Update: sure enough, Lionsgate is going to split the “last” entry in the Hunger Games series into two separate entries, to cash in on the franchise as much as possible.

    As Keith Staskiewicz reported in Entertainment Weekly, “the studio has announced that they plan to split Mockingjay—the final novel in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy—into two separate films: the ingeniously titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2. The plan is to make this a yearly event through 2015, with Catching Fire hitting theaters on November 22, 2013, Mockingjay, Part 1 on November 21, 2014, and Mockingjay, Part 2 on Nov. 20, 2015. That way, each Thanksgiving, Americans can give thanks that they’re not being forced to fight to the death as a spectator sport, even if holidays with the family can make it feel that way.”

    This is actually old news, having been announced on July 10, 2012, but nevertheless, it’s no surprise; as I wrote above, Lionsgate is “intent on vacuuming up as much cash as they can, and extending the franchise if possible, before the whole thing crashes and burns in a flaming wreck.”

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