Back in the Arena

‘Catching Fire’ Review: Bigger, More Polished, and Just Another Popcorn Flick

If Catching Fire drags, it’s because it follows the exact same plot structure as The Hunger Games. Sure, it’s bigger and more polished, but it’s just a simple blockbuster.

11.14.13 10:45 AM ET

The Hunger Games nimbly delivered the feast we’d been hoping for. It was the perfect cinematic cornucopia: full of vitality, but gritty; unflinching and brutal, but with the blood flowing from a beating, compassionate heart; serving satiating heaps of emotional melodrama without the side of cheese. Those tricky dichotomies flicker impressively throughout the film’s follow up, Catching Fire. But if the first film was a carefully executed buffet of complex, unexpected, and interesting pairings, this new sequel is something much simpler: a standard Hollywood popcorn flick.

That’s not meant to extinguish any of the heat Catching Fire delivers. The film crackles with improved action set pieces and delivers the smoldering love triangle that earned the series its “next Twilight” branding. And popcorn, as it happens, is very good. Who doesn’t like popcorn, particularly when it’s popping on the heat of Jennifer Lawrence’s incendiary Catching Fire performance? But who, also, doesn’t get more excited when they see something a little more unusual and surprising on the menu at the snack bar?

The Hunger Games was a precarious experiment that succeeded despite the odds never really being in its favor. It overcame concerns about whether it could believably depict the harrowing violence that was so instrumental in the book on screen in a way tame enough for its YA target demographic to stomach. By craftily shooting the most disturbing scenes like a guerilla-style reality show, the film managed to be faithfully barbaric while still humane to the franchise’s young fans. Every casting decision was questioned by the series’ obsessive—not to mention vocal and judgy—fans, yet Lawrence dispelled all initial doubts by creating a Katniss Everdeen both steely and unhinged. Pundits wondered whether it would be a trite film appealing solely to those familiar with its source book series, but director Gary Ross instead delivered provocative commentary about society, government control, and corruption.

Imagine: a populist film that still makes you think.

There was scrappiness in the way The Hunger Games pulled this off: a crowd-pleaser with something to say, a YA novel transformed into a must-see film. Having already accomplished that, Catching Fire arrives as if having something to prove. Everything about the sequel is bigger, crisper, more thought-out, and more polished—in all the expertly produced positives and characterless negatives that those superlatives suggest.

The rise in scale, and in stakes, is telegraphed early on in the nearly two-and-a-half hour film. It's just after Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Mellark had outwitted the dastardly Capitol. The duo had been selected tributes in the annual Hunger Games, a government-sponsored televised competition in which two teenagers from each of Panem's 12 districts are chosen to fight to the death, but concocted a love story that charmed the mass population and devised fool-proof escape plan that saved them. They'd both threatened to eat poisonous berries, lest they both be rescued at the last minute.

Furious at being duped, Donald Sutherland's chilly President Snow visits Katniss, now the figurehead of a nation-wide rebellion against the government, at her home. Snow warns Katniss about the dangers of no longer just being the glamorous Girl on Fire, but now also the kindle setting blaze to a full-blown anti-establishment revolution.

"Must be a fragile system if it can be brought down by a few berries," she says. He replies with a warning. "They were games. Would you like to be in a real war?"

The war does not disappoint.

Director Francis Lawrence makes startling imagery out of the district dwellers being persecuted by the threatened Capitol—elderly rebels shot in cold blood, innocent citizens rounded up and flogged, the heart-wrenching execution of anyone suspected of subversion. "From now on, your job is to be a distraction," Katniss and Peeta are told after unintentionally starting a deadly riot with an impassioned speech about justice while on their Victory Tour.

Readers of Catching Fire are all too aware of just how much of a distraction they are meant to be. To scare the discontent out of the citizens of the Panem, the Capitol orders the next Hunger Games, the 75th anniversary, to be a special event—the tributes sparring to the death would be chosen from the crop of living victors of past games, the very symbols, Katniss being the most visible, of the revolution.

It takes more than 80 minutes for Katniss to finally be catapulted—in a gorgeous, devastating sequence involving the tragic end to fan-favorite character—into the arena for the action-packed fighting of the games, and they're gray, moody, exposition-heavy minutes. It's here that you see the $130-million plus Catching Fire budget, upped from The Hunger Games' $78-million allowance, pay off. The new arena is essentially a high-tech amusement park adventure ride as if designed by the Marquis de Sade, with forms of torture so clever they almost deserve applause.

It's also here that you miss some of the basic magic of the original movie. Dazzling special effects produce poisonous gas, flash tidal waves, rabid killer monkeys, and deadly invisible force fields to hurry along the death in the arena, but none of the big-budget tricks are as affecting as the cunning, ferocious, and CGI-less battle of wits and fists that made the fight to the fatal finish so haunting in the first film.

Catching Fire, in many respects, serves a thankless role in the grander Hunger Games film series, a bridge between the culture-seizing first film and the epic two-part revolution finale coming with Mockingjay. If the film drags, which, at 146 minutes, it should be no surprise that it occasionally does, it's because it follows the same plot structure as The Hunger Games, just with elevated stakes. One act chronicles the bleakness of living under Capitol rule in Panem. The next finds Katniss drafted into the Hunger Games and follows her training. Act three is when we see her fight. It's hard to escape the feeling, as the film drags on, that we've seen it all before already.

There are certainly elements we're happy to see again, namely the supporting cast. Elizabeth Banks as the coldly chipper Effie Trinkett and Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's gruff trainers find new depths in what would otherwise be stock characters. Stanley Tucci's gregarious TV host finds new shades of delightful shamelessness this go around. The film also benefits from excellent casting of the veteran tributes. Jena Malone is a warrior raptor as Johanna Mason, Sam Claflin undulates between swoon-inducing debonair and heartbreaking self-pity with dangerous and affecting abandon as Finnick, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman makes for a wily game designer, the man in charge of devising the forms of torture the competitors will face.

The franchise's fans will be riveted by the climax, while those unfamiliar with the books might be as disoriented and bleary-eyed as Katniss as they try to piece together the final set-up for the Mockingjay finale. (That's not the only need-to-have-read-the-book misfire: Katniss's romance with Liam Hemsworth's Gale is not given nearly enough development in the movies to make their oh-so brief waffling about love at all interesting here.) It's a tall order to speed along a blockbuster franchise while still imbuing it with the cultural importance and political undertones and Lawrence and his team pull it off gamely with Catching Fire—too gamely.

They're always trying to upsell you on that jumbo popcorn bucket at the movies. But no one can ever finish it, and they always regret ordering it. Sometimes less popcorn is just the right amount.