As popular culture has grown more serialized—in particular, more trilogized—one of the terms that has entered the common parlance is the middle book/film syndrome. If the first installment in a trilogy needs to sell itself with a self-contained story, and the third needs to deliver a grand finale, the part that bridges them is often dedicated to setup, and can feel less worthwhile in its own right. The ubiquity of the term, however, can obscure the fact that middle film syndrome isn't necessarily a problem. The Empire Strikes Back suffers from all the classic flaws of the middle part of a story—it has a bitty, diffuse plot, is concerned mainly with setting up conflicts and situations that the next film will resolve, and has a downer, almost anticlimactic ending. And yet it is universally acknowledged as the best Star Wars film. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second film in the series based on Suzanne Collins's mega-bestselling YA novels, has what one might describe as classic middle film problems, but these are compounded by its failure to do what The Empire Strikes Back does so well—expand its preceding chapter's world and deepen its story's stakes.
The film opens nearly a year after the end of The Hunger Games (2012). The joint victors of the previous year's games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who won the audience's affections, and their lives, by shamming a star-crossed romance (a sham that was, of course, no sham on Peeta's end, and grew less so on Katniss's as the games progressed), are preparing for their "victory tour." During the tour they will visit the twelve districts of Panem, allegedly celebrating their victory but really reinforcing the Panem Capitol's power to force the "tributes" of each district to fight each other to the death. Away from the cameras, relations between Katniss and Peeta have settled into a frosty civility, under the strain of Peeta's need to know how much of their on-screen connection was real, while Katniss, as she tells her other love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth), is still too focused on survival to give much thought to romance.
That survival becomes all the more tenuous when the silky-voiced President Snow (Donald Sutherland) informs Katniss that her defiance in the previous games, when she threatened to commit suicide with Peeta rather than turn on him, has turned her into a figurehead for burgeoning rebellion, and uses threats to her family to get her to use her newfound celebrity to pacify the districts. When, despite Katniss and Peeta's best efforts to toe the company line, they still end up inciting riots and unrest, Snow and his new gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) decide to get rid of them in the somewhat roundabout fashion of forcing them back into the games, in a seventy-fifth, "quarter quell" anniversary edition in which past winners from every district are pitted against each other.
What worked in the first Hunger Games film, and made it such an immersive, engaging experience, is back in force here. Panem is still wonderfully realized, down to the clothing, architecture, and technology, at every level a combination of the familiar and the futuristic. In the first film, the transition from the muted palette and early-twentieth-century look of poor District 12 to the grotesque opulence, the high-tech Versailles of the Capitol was the production designers' most convincing worldbuilding touch, and Catching Fire builds on it by throwing the two elements together. The luxuriously appointed bullet train that carries Katniss and Peeta on their tour feels like its own world, but when it lets out onto the grey, grimy reality of the districts the blow of the transition is as powerful to the audience as it is to the characters. Other worldbuilding touches, such as the families of fallen tributes greeting the victory tour on stages bearing gigantic images of their loved ones, give a sense of the grotesque ceremony of the games, and of how their pretense at sportsmanship and honor only lightly conceals a ruthless instrument of oppression.
The cast, too, remains one of the series's core strengths. Expanding on his small role in The Hunger Games, Sutherland perfectly embodies the velvet glove concealing a steel fist, while Hoffman's more cynical, straight-talking Plutarch gives a voice to the harsh reality behind the games' pomp and ceremony. Woody Harrelson remains one of the series's strongest assets as the sardonic, dissipated Haymitch Abernathy, the former District 12 winner who acted as Katniss and Peeta's mentor in the previous games, and whose relationship with them is now on a more equal footing, as the only person in their lives who understands the horrors they've experienced and committed. And Elizabeth Banks finds an unexpected note of tragedy in the shallow Capitol flunky Effie Trinket, whose obsession with the games' ceremony starts to wear away over the course of the film, giving way to a sneaking realization of the horror that she is enabling.
Still carrying the films, however, and arguably the reason that they have succeeded where so many other YA adaptations have crashed and burned, is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Lawrence perfectly embodied Katniss's toughness, self-sacrificing courage, and short temper in the first Hunger Games, but Catching Fire complicates that heroic figure by showing us how insufficient that heroism is when Katniss tries to navigate her post-games life. Though everyone around her—Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, and even her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields)—tries to make Katniss see the wider political context of her actions in the games, she remains focused on survival. Katniss's greatest strength is her ability to quickly learn and master the simple rules of her immediate environment, whether it's poaching in the woods of her home district, working out how to survive in the dangerous game arenas, or becoming a master manipulator of the games' audience. Though it's Peeta who comes up with the star-crossed lovers angle in the first film, Katniss is the one who figures out how to so successfully sell their romance that they achieve an unprecedented joint victory, and in Catching Fire she's still stage-managing their relationship, orchestrating a "spontaneous" display of affection for the cameras, or coolly announcing that she and Peeta must become engaged in order to stave off Snow's wrath. What makes Lawrence's performance in Catching Fire exceptional is how she subtly turns that strength into a weakness—Katniss is so focused on those simple rules of survival that she fails to notice what everyone around her has seen, that the game has changed and become far too complicated for such a tactic—without surrendering the trait that makes Katniss heroic, her reflexive, kneejerk compassion and protectiveness towards anyone weaker than her.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that, after a first act seemingly concerned with giving us a better view of Panem and Katniss's smallness within it, Catching Fire returns us to the games, and delivers essentially a retread of the first film. All the major set-pieces of The Hunger Games are revisited—the chariot ride through the Capitol, the training montage, the formal dress interview, the individual talent presentation—with some, but not nearly as much variation on the first film as one might expect. There's obviously a point to this—Katniss is returning to the games not as the underdog but as a seasoned victor, and that the games are simultaneously life-threatening and old hat ties into the film's central theme of learning to see beyond the systems of control that they represent (a point literalized by the film's focus on the games arena as a constructed piece of technology, which can be interrupted and damaged by the players). This does not, however, make up for the fact that a significant portion of Catching Fire is spent in repetition of events that, by definition, lack the urgency of the first film, when Katniss was a newcomer to the Capitol and the games. The bulk of the film is spent waiting for something new to happen and justify this repetitiveness.
While we're waiting, it becomes easier to notice how counterproductive and self-sabotaging the Capitol's attempts to undermine Katniss are. If the purpose of Catching Fire is to show us how ill-equipped Katniss is to cope with the complex politics outside the games arena, the fact that her enemies turn out to be fools undercuts this point, as well the film's attempt at upping its stakes. The film's trailers have heavily featured a scene in which Snow shows Katniss a recording of her and Gale kissing. I naturally assumed that the implicit threat was to release the recording—what better way to destroy Katniss's image and her ability to rally rebellion than to reveal that she's been unfaithful to Peeta? In the film itself, however, the recording serves only to threaten Gale's life. It does not ever seem to occur to Snow to use the recording to damage Katniss's reputation. Neither does he opt for for the obvious alternative of having Katniss killed. The film trots out the standard boilerplate about not wanting to turn Katniss into a martyr, but this is just what Hollywood says when it can't explain why a powerful villain won't just kill a much weaker hero. The truth is, such martyrdom is the exception, and most of the time, when totalitarian governments kill rebels and activists, the people are suitably cowed.
There's some promise of meaty material in Plutarch's plan to make Katniss look like a Capitol insider. We'd already seen, in the first film, Katniss's disgust at Haymitch's comfort with the Capitol's ways and its luxuries, and in Catching Fire we learn that other victors have become celebrities in the Capitol. Surely it would be the easiest thing in the world to move Katniss and Peeta to the Capitol and make them look like pleasure-seeking sellouts? Instead, Snow chooses to put Katniss back in the arena—which not only wins her sympathy but compounds his likability problem by bringing twenty-odd other winners into the mix to tug at the audience's heartstrings with tales of how they've been cruelly yanked out of their hard-won lives and back into the games. His assumption is that, after a whole game in which Katniss not only avoided killing but actually protected a much weaker player for no reason except compassion, she will suddenly start slaughtering the innocent left and right, thus tarnishing her image as a savior.
Not only is this a ludicrous plan, but it draws unneeded and fatal attention to the series's greatest flaw, the fact that Katniss is never placed in a position where she must truly compromise herself, and that this is achieved by designating certain participants in the games as evil, and thus killable. The first film's introduction of "Career" tributes—young people from wealthy districts who train for the games and volunteer for a chance to win glory and riches, instead of being selected in a lottery like the tributes from the poorer districts—was already suspect, a way of letting Katniss of the hook by having her only kill people who were cruel, bloodthirsty, and who had already tried to kill her. Even that film, however, included one scene that acknowledged that the Careers were human beings, and young ones at that, who could still feel fear in the face of death.
Catching Fire backslides on this point. When Katniss sees a former Career burst into tears during her pre-game interview, she assumes with a sneer that this is a performance (an assumption that the film seems to validate). The possibility that this woman—who is entering the arena with her brother—might genuinely be afraid, and sad that either she or someone she loves are going to die, is never considered. Similarly, while the film stresses the psychological toll of winning the games, with many past winners having suffered breakdowns or succumbed to substance abuse, this collapse is reserved solely for the "innocent" tributes, not the Careers, who are assumed to still be the same evil—and thus killable—people who won their original games. No space is given to the possibility that just because you were raised to believe that murdering other children is normal, and bought into that way of thinking as a teenager, doesn't mean you'd still believe it as an adult or be able to cope with the reality of committing those acts.
Instead of expanding and complicating its world, Catching Fire takes The Hunger Games's simplistic good vs. evil mentality—the mentality that helped Katniss survive, but which in the earlier parts of this film seems to be weighing her down—and overlays it onto all of Panem, which is starkly divided into those who support Snow and those who are part of the rebellion. The true horror of totalitarian regimes is how they make it impossible to live a decent life, forcing their citizens to inform on their neighbors or cheat each other in order to survive. That kind of complicity is missing from Catching Fire, whether it comes to the tributes or the citizens of the Capitol. As moving as Effie's halting progress towards self-awareness is, it can't conceal the fact that her "let them eat cake"-style naiveté doesn't work in the kind of dystopia that Panem is supposed to be. You don't survive in the upper echelons of a totalitarian regime by being an oblivious airhead, but by being canny and good at reading subtle cues about what not to say and who not to be seen with. Such people are missing from the film's Capitol, which is populated solely by monsters and saints. When Katniss strikes a note of defiance with a dress that transforms from a wedding gown into a Mockingjay costume, the symbol of the rebellion, she does so with the help of her stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the only person we meet in the Capitol who seems to recognize the games' barbarism. For his defiance, Cinna is badly beaten, perhaps killed, shortly before Katniss enters the arena. As someone who has spent his life in the Capitol, however, we might have expected that Cinna would know what he was risking by helping Katniss. That we don't see him choose to make such a sacrifice—and that the film doesn't leave space for the possibility that he might want to help Katniss but not at the cost of his own life—undercuts what could have been a chance to deepen our understanding of Panem and how it works.
A lot of the criticisms I've raised here are almost certainly complaints that should be laid against the book, which I haven't read. But one of the reasons that I was so impressed with The Hunger Games was how it improved on its source material by expanding its viewpoint. Where the book was locked into Katniss's limited, often uncomprehending point of view, the film showed us other perspectives—other characters outside the games arena, but also the reality TV apparatus that sprang up around the games, and which treated them as entertainment rather than a cruel mechanism of oppression. Instead of expanding on that choice, Catching Fire zeros in on Katniss's perspective just as it become the least privileged point of view in the story—there's clearly a lot going on around her that she isn't aware of or can't figure out, but once she's in the arena we stop seeing outside it, and the reality TV aspect of the story—the color commentary and audience reaction shots—is all but eliminated. Even scenes that take place away from Katniss—mainly discussions between Snow and Plutarch about how to neutralize her—are missing crucial bits of information which are only revealed in the film's final moments, and undermined by the shallowness of the tactic they settle on.
While Katniss herself remains vivid, this focus on her means that the rest of the cast—which is significantly expanded in this movie—is shortchanged. Peeta is even more of a saintly blank in this film than in the previous one. In one ridiculous scene, he turns out to have smuggled into the arena a locket containing pictures of Katniss's loved ones—including Gale, his romantic rival—in order to galvanize her to survive. Gale, meanwhile, is so rarely on screen that it's only by dint of Lawrence's yearning expression that the notion of a love triangle gains even the slightest credence. Even the new tributes who form an alliance with Katniss and Peeta barely register. Sam Claflin's Finnick Odair is very nearly the film's second lead, but most of his time is spent enabling Katniss and Peeta's survival in the arena, and we get little sense of him as a person. Jena Malone's Johanna Mason, meanwhile, is all personality, whether she's stripping naked in front of Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch after the chariot ride or shouting imprecations at Snow from the arena, but there's no attempt to tie these outrageous displays into an actual person. And while Jeffrey Wright makes the most of a small part as the tech-head former winner Beetee, conveying intelligence and cunning with every word, the most galling of the new characters is Mags (Lynn Cohen), an elderly tribute whose soft-spoken doddering seemed so over the top that I was sure it would be revealed as an act, but who instead turns out to genuinely be just a nice little old lady, dying with so little fuss that it's a puzzle why she was even in the film to begin with.
The reason that Catching Fire is so locked into Katniss's point of view is revealed in its closing moments, when the events of the games turn out to have been a distraction from the start of the rebellion (this is also, presumably, meant as justification for Snow's poor tactics where Katniss is concerned, since he's been receiving deliberately bad advice, but that still requires us to believe that Snow himself is a political naif). As twists go, it doesn't justify the repetitiveness and frustrations of the previous two hours—the fact that nothing that happened on screen actually mattered, while everything important happened away from the camera. The film itself seems to realize this. Having sacrificed all chances of expanding its world for the sake of this revelation, it makes a desperate, last-minute stab at deepening the story's stakes by revealing that—again, off screen—a terrible atrocity has occurred that will galvanize Katniss and force her into the figurehead role that the resistance wants her to play. Like many of the film's events, this atrocity doesn't actually make any sense when you think about it—it essentially represents Snow cutting off his society's energy source to spite one girl—and the power of revealing it, and of Lawrence's anguished response, only stress that the preceding film was just marking time before we got to this point. Catching Fire may be setting up a powerful and affecting ending to the Hunger Games films, but it squanders the opportunities it was given to be a worthwhile story in its own right.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.