Catching hell

Death march or runway show? In Panem, it’s hard to tell.

Death march or runway show? In Panem, it’s hard to tell.

Rated 2.0

Who the hell is Katniss Everdeen?

Anyone who has read Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of dystopian best sellers can probably provide a litany of adjectives to describe the story’s heroine. However, this uninitiated-to-the-novels critic is two plodding films into the cinematic saga of Katniss’ adventures in the fascistic future world of Panem, and the character still feels devoid of personality.

Early in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, one character says that all he knows about Katniss is she’s “stubborn and good with a bow.” It’s meant as a joke, but the description is startlingly spot-on and starts to hang ominously over the picture. This second installment takes 146 minutes to develop Katniss from a girl who is “stubborn and good with a bow” to a woman who is angry and good with a bow.

As the film opens, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home after surviving the Hunger Games, a televised spectacle in which young “tributes” from various “districts” fight to the death. The 12 districts are quite helpfully ranked in order of least to most wretched (Katniss and Peeta live in the thoroughly impoverished District 12), and all of them are ruthlessly ruled by a central state known as The Capitol, led by the vile President Snow.

Donald Sutherland plays Snow, and he slowly hisses every line and rattles a dainty little teacup so that everyone understands he’s supposed to be evil. Snow also talks openly about being evil, just in case anyone didn’t get it the first time with the dainty little teacup. On the off chance that any of the crushingly obvious themes about fascist states using media as a distraction aren’t crystal clear, Snow explains them in elementary and repetitive monologues on “fear” and “hope.”

It’s really not Sutherland’s fault that he gives such a broad, one-note performance. Jennifer Lawrence also can’t be blamed for failing to make Katniss a fully realized person, although her chilly inability to connect with co-stars is a problem. It’s safe to assume that Lawrence is just too smart for this stuff, which results in an indifferent performance. Every actor in the film is constrained by the one-note characters, courtesy of a cluttered script credited to Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a contender for the title of “greatest American actor,” and even he’s lifeless in the role of the gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Catching Fire makes a lot of fuss about the decadent lifestyle inside The Capitol, where citizens drink a champagnelike emetic so they can gorge endlessly, while people in the outer districts starve. It’s also pretty decadent to take an actor of Hoffman’s stature and restrict him to a purely expository role with no room to make it his own.

Catching Fire crams in a lot of plot and characters that are seemingly unnecessary to the film story, while simultaneously expanding on the saga’s overarching mythology. This is, presumably, a sop to fans clamoring for a more literal adaptation of Collins’ books. As a result, we learn more about Panem politics and less about the characters we’re supposed to care about.

Katniss and Peeta faked a romance to get out of the Hunger Games alive, and Snow forces them to perpetuate the ruse on State-enforced television and a public-relations tour. She still holds a torch for her childhood crush (Liam Hemsworth), but her love for Peeta becomes real as the story progresses, at which point Lawrence and Hutcherson’s lack of chemistry becomes especially off-putting.

As Katniss travels through the districts, she emerges as a “beacon of hope for the rebellion.” That leads Snow to create a 75th anniversary, all-star version of the Hunger Games, with the intent of eliminating all past victors and effectively destroying hope forever. Donald Sutherland explains this confusing and needlessly complicated plan a lot better.

The violent and sometimes eerie unpredictability of the games makes for a decent third act. Director Francis Lawrence has more competence with action and special effects than his Hunger Games predecessor Gary Ross. But without a strong investment in the characters, the PG-13 slaughter is just a bloodthirsty distraction from larger issues. As such, Catching Fire would probably play well in Panem.