At two-and-a-half hours, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” has ample time to wander in and out of several versions of itself. There’s the first 45 minutes or so, a deadly-dull stretch of dreary plodding that amplifies the most boring parts of the first film. Then the next 45 minutes or so, a slightly more engaging stretch when we learn that interesting things are actually going to happen in the movie: more Hunger Games — a cross between “Survivor” and the Junior Olympics, in which kids from various parts of a dystopian America are pitted against one another in the wilderness, to the death, on TV.
Then the Hunger Games themselves take place, and they’re another round of dreary plodding, just with action, almost at random. Almost nothing about this movie makes a shred of sense. What’s worse, it lacks the self-awareness to realize that a story about revolutionary politics that relies on rolling banks of poison fog and gang-battles against ferocious mandrills risks devolving into a stale, muddled pudding of a movie. “Catching Fire” is that stale pudding.
The games propelled the first film, but with winner Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, the best thing in either movie) now a celebrity and a reluctant revolutionary icon, her perceived influence moves the action now. Her popularity stemmed from her willingness to die along with her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) rather than for one to kill the another; this somehow has galvanized opposition to the tyrannical reign of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), so now he wants Katniss to shill for the regime or to die, if not both.
Her charade requires public love-bird affections between Katniss and Peeta, which doesn’t bother him as much as it does her, since she’s sweet on a rugged lad named Gale (Liam Hemsworth) whose great bone structure alas doesn’t also support a personality. Amazingly Phillip Seymour Hoffman has a prominent part as the new game master, also without evincing much of a character.
Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend”) was advertised as a dark upgrade over “Hunger Games” director Gary Ross (“Big,” “Seabiscuit”) — perhaps, the thinking may have gone, mirroring the success of the Harry Potter franchise swapping out Chris Columbus for Alfonso Cuarón after two movies. But the source material, Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult novels, proves too campy to infuse with much heft. The totalitarian regime never comes across quite right, projected as a nightmare future held together with the sugar-stickiness of a reality TV event that slaughters people. It feels ditzy and feeble.
Maybe the American experiment is in fact heading to such gilded doldrums. If television is indeed a culprit, or at least an accomplice, the Hunger Games series wouldn’t be the first to make that prediction. What we’re missing, though, is a sense either of high-concept science-fiction B-movie fun or a grittier depiction of the inner workings of this revolt that Katniss is inadvertently headlining. If people are just mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, how does a woman with virtually no political will catalyze them?
That Katniss unconsciously foments a revolt says something about the zeitgeist of “Hunger Games” devotees. “Twilight” fans want hot, dangerous boyfriends; Harry Potter fans fantasize about magical powers; “Star Wars” fans would love to save the galaxy.
The fantasy “Catching Fire” sells is far less glamorous: stay alive long enough, and the masses will idolize you for convictions you didn’t even realize you held. At last, slacktivism has found its “Star Trek.”