There is a pretty decent 90-minute movie hiding within THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, but the filmmakers were not going to let that fast-paced thriller escape from the laborious two-and-half-hour running time required to appease a fanbase that wants every major development, nuance, and tidbit from the source material to at least rate a mention on screen. Patient viewers (including not only readers of the Suzanne Collins novels) will still find an enjoyable viewing experience, but only the most forgiving fans will be able to completely overlook the longueurs - which are even longer here than they were in the previous film.
As before, there is a rather length preamble before we get to the good stuff, which is of course the titular Hunger Games. This time, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embark on a government-mandated promotional-propaganda tour of the twelve districts, selling their tale of survival and feigned romance to the populace, who presumably will be pacified and more accepting of their miserable fate while the elites continue to live high on the hog.
What's that about feigned romance, you ask? Well, you ask if you have not read the book, because nothing in THE HUNGER GAMES suggested Katniss did not fall in love with Peeta, but in order to make the sequel story work, that previously overlooked narrative thread finally finds its way off the page and onto the screen. It makes for a rather sulky first act, with Katniss's true love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) lamenting how genuine Katniss's feelings for Peeta seem, while Peeta sulks over how artificial they are.
Unfortunately, the challenge of acting as if she is acting is a bit of a stretch for Lawrence, whose feigned passion for Peeta registers as no more or less passionate than her allegedly real feelings for Gale. Lawrence is hardly helped by the series of gowns and makeups she is given to wear: one would like to forgive them as intentional attempts to underline the clown-show nature of the victory tour, but at times they look simply like failed attempts to render the actress in an exotic guise, and by the time dress designer CInna (Lenny Kravitz) is ruthlessly beaten, the action seems less like political ploy than aesthetic statement about his work.
Fortunately, President Snow ( Donald Sutherland) puts the sulk-fest at least somewhat to bed when he grows resentful over the popularity of Katniss and Peeta, who success seems to be inspiring hope in a populace that Snow wants permanently quelled. Hoping to nip this development in the bud, Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) contrive a new version of the Hunger Games, in which twenty-four previous winners will compete, with the goal of eliminating the popular heroes and showing the futility of hoping to rise above one's station in life.
The "hope" question is contradictory of THE HUNGER GAMES, in which Snow specifically stated that hope was the essential reason for having a winner: hope keeps people from succumbing to despair and believing there is nothing left to lose, which in turn can lead to rebellion. Apparently, hope is a Goldilocks kind of thing: you don't too little or too much, but Snow never clarifies exactly what qualifies as "just right."
However, none of this matters, as it is just a contrivance to get Katniss and Peeta back on the killing field. Once there, the film generates considerable, if familiar, interest, as alliances are formed and tested, and our heroes ponder the moral dilemma of joining forces with people they may be forced to kill later, in order to survive themselves (a dilemma that, fortunately for mass-market taste, the scenario solves for them). The lethal action on the island where this year's Hunger Games takes place is captivating - not just viscerally exciting but also emotionally engaging - which is a good thing, because the plot developments are, well...mostly a matter of marking time until the next film.
Snow and Plutarch begin and even more Draconian program of repression against the twelve districts, theoretically in order to suppress that unwanted rising hope. Strangely, the arbitrary nature seems more like to foment an uprising than repress one, and one begins to wonder just how Snow has managed to stay in power.
This question is not directly answered, but a twist ending gives us insight into why the tactics might be been deliberately designed to produce exactly the opposite of their stated result.
Plutarch turns out to be part of a resistance movement, in league with Katniss's mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). This also explains why several competitors on the island seemed willing to sacrifice themselves to save Katniss and Peeta; it's all part of a plan whose details are to be revealed later.
Unfortunately, this is one of those revelations that raises as many questions as it answers, such as: Why isn't President Snow smart enough to see that Plutarch's methods are having the opposite of the desire result? And how did Plutarch and Haymitch know to have their rescue ship poised above the dome on the island at precisely the moment when Katniss, on the spur of the movement, performs an entirely unexpected action that blasts a hole in the dome, allowing the rescue ship to get in? And if Plutarch and Haymitch are so on top of the situation as to be able to pull this off, how is is that (we are told) the President managed to get his hands on Peeta and take him to the capital? We also have to wonder whether we are now supposed to forgive Plutarch for the lethal results of the plans he concocted with Snow - is this a Machiavellian case of the ends justifying the means?
Worst of all, this half-articulated surprise revelation is supposed to pass for a climax, but it is entirely inadequate. The movie simply stops in mid-sentence, and instead of a real ending, we get a nifty CGI rendition of the mocking bird emblem, in a blaze of firy gold (the closest the film comes to living up to its title). Call it THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK syndrome: who needs a conclusion when you're watching the middle chapter of a trilogy?
Though it never fully ignites, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE has its virtues. The satirical depiction of the Capital is amusing if a bit broad (Stanley Tucci's phony smile as TV celeb announce Caesar Flickerman is still funny but wearing out its welcome). The film takes effective pot shots at the contrived nature of "Reality TV," which is relentless manipulated behind the scenes to fit narrative requirements. And the propaganda nature of the resulting popular success stories is relentless mocked though the bogus victory tour, in which Katniss and Peeta must seal the deal on their publicly perceived personas by playing out their romance on camera, regardless of Katniss's actual indifference. (One of the film's highlights occurs when Peeta, having learned to play the game, announces he would have no regrets about playing another round of the Hunger Games "if it weren't for the baby" - the phony announcement of Katniss's non-existent pregnancy predictably delights the decadent crowds.)
THE HUNGER GAMES remains one of the best film adaptations of a young adult novel in recent memory, exceeding expectations for a genre mired in muck like TWLIGHT. Unfortunately, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE succumbs to twin devils of Sequel Syndrome and Franchise Disorder: it provides more of the same - not bad, but not better - and its main goal is less to be a satisfying work unto itself than a teaser to keep you coming back for more.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (Lionsgate, 2013). Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Simon Beuafoy, Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Rated PG-13. 146 minutes. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrleson, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci.