It's A Hunger Games Of Two Halves, Brian
You could happily spend forever pointing out all the things The Hunger Games series is derivative of, and come to think of it I indulged myself quite a bit when I was talking about the first film. So let's just say Year of the Sex Olympics, occasional bits of Star Trek, and Battle Royale one last time and move on to considering the new movie on its own merits.
The hefty lead-times involved in a movie this size mean that Gary Ross has been replaced as the director by Francis Lawrence, a prolific creator of music videos but someone really lacking in a significant movie CV. These movies are basically a licence to print money anyway, so all it really takes is a safe pair of hands, I suppose.
Anyway, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (one of the increasing number of films that doesn't bother with a title card until the end credits) is very much what it is, which is one of the middle films in a blockbuster genre adaptation franchise. (As is pretty much obligatory these days, the final volume is being chopped in two to maximise the bottom line increase viewers' pleasure.) By this I mean that it assumes most of the audience will not only have seen the first film, but watched it recently on DVD, because there isn't what you could call a recap of the events of part one.
Jennifer Lawrence again plays Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who when asked to describe herself opts for 'Stubborn – good with a bow – that's about it.' I think she's forgetting 'fond of knitwear', but that's just me. Having won the titular games in the first film, she and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – not stubborn, not much good with a bow, basically just blandly good-looking and a bit dull – are coming to terms with the realities of life as victors. They are celebrities, but more than that, the manner of their victory has made them symbols of dissent against the autocratic government, as embodied by nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
For complex and slightly subtle reasons, Snow manages to persuade Katniss that preventing an uprising against the authorities requires her and Peeta to maintain the fantasy of the romance they simulated during the games, and do her best to avoid stoking the flames of dissent. Of course, events prove this to be quite difficult, and Snow comes to realise that the cult of personality surrounding games victors is a threat to his own position: the games weren't intended to produce heroes, but that's what's happening (oops, forgot one: it's a bit like the original Rollerball, too).
So, with the aid of new games director Plutarch Heavensbee (good grief, these names), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Snow hits upon a wheeze which will probably kill all these symbols of opposition – and even if it doesn't, Katniss's reputation as a good citizen will likely take a major hit. He decides to stage a champion-of-champions version of the hunger games where only previous winners will compete.
It takes quite a long time for the film to reach this point, and another quite long time for the various pre-games rituals and games themselves to play out. The result is a film which, to be perfectly honest, felt to me to be rather longer than was strictly necessary, especially when so much of the second half is more-or-less a retread of the same material from the first film – all right, so they're in a jungle rather than a forest this time, and things get spiced up a bit by the introduction of acid gas, homicidal baboons, and so on, into the proceedings, but even so.
I thought the first half of the film was by far the more interesting, anyway, dealing with the realities – both political and personal – of The Hunger Games' world with a surprising level of sophistication and subtlety. Contrasts are repeatedly drawn, between the fantasy of the viewing channels and the reality of life in the various districts, between the personae Katniss and Peeta adopt for their fans, and who they really are, and so on. This section of the film is surprisingly subtle and cynical, in many ways, and it doesn't feel the need to belabour the audience with the points it is making.
Then again, it did occur to me that The Hunger Games may be the most dystopian piece of SF ever to form the basis of a modern blockbuster franchise: this is a horrible, brutal world, and we are shown absolutely as many details of it as the 12 certificate will permit. My main criticism of the first film was that it just wasn't vicious and shocking enough: I do not make that same criticism here. The parallels with the days of the Roman Empire are not made with a great deal of delicacy, but that doesn't stop them being effective.
So this is, at least in part, a very competently made and rather thoughtful piece of SF. However, it felt to me like a potentially very good film bashed out of shape by the need to be part of a franchise. We don't get a proper opening, as it follows straight on from the first film and doesn't bother to introduce the characters, and – especially irksomely – it doesn't really have a proper conclusion, opting instead for a cliffhanger into the forthcoming part three.
And I still think the fact that the film is consciously pitching to as broad an audience as possible is a problem. Everything, from the plot to the characters, is just a little blanded out or soap-opera'd up in an attempt to make it as palatable as possible. As a result none of the cast really get the material they deserve to show their full abilities, and this is a real shame when performers like Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman are sharing scenes. (Also particularly good this time around are Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone as two of Lawrence's rival competitors – Toby Jones, on the other hand, has landed himself a plum spot in the cast list but barely appears.) Then again, I suppose you could argue that people like Hoffman and Lawrence aren't cast in this kind of film to give brilliant, subtle performances, they're here to give a glossy genre movie a bit of credibility and gravitas. (We really should be honest that, both here and in the X-Men films, Jennifer Lawrence really is slumming it in return for a fat paycheck.)
There were a lot of things that I liked about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – the cast do the best they can, the production designs are pleasing, and the generally horrible tenor of the whole thing is sort of refreshing. I wasn't so impressed by the structure, as I said, and the soap-opera love-triangle romance elements felt a bit laboured to me. Some of these negatives will no doubt get fixed for part three, while others I'm sure will be with us for the duration. For the time being, though, this is one big franchise which doesn't feel like it's outstaying its welcome or presuming too much on the audience's goodwill.