2 stars

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright

Director: Francis Lawrence

Running time: 146 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language

It begins with a 90-minute fashion show masquerading as a sci-fi epic, then ends abruptly.

Because "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is the most female-friendly/runway-ready sci-fi franchise ever, and the latest film in the four-film trilogy is meant to be a cliffhanger, after all.

But once things get going, finally get under way, this humorless chatterbox of intrigues, rebellion and a love triangle that seems "Twilighty" in its lovelessness packs in some real pathos. And while it might leave fans begging for more, and right away, the rest of the universe can be excused for rolling its collective eyes and snapping, "Oh, for Peeta's sake, get on with it."

The victors in the 74th Hunger Games are touring the land, sharing their "love story for the ages" at the behest of the Capital, and the president, played by Donald Sutherland.

President Snow knows all, including the fact that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) don't click as a couple.

Katniss also knows too much and senses the unrest in the land, which worries the daylights out of Snow. Perhaps she'll use her manufactured celebrity to inspire a revolt.

And they cannot leave her and Peeta to their dull District 12 mining lives, where Katniss can share her real feelings with hunky miner Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

So the "next" Hunger Games, the 75th, the "Quarter Quell" event, will round up lots of recent winners/survivors of the Games to go at it, to the death, to get these symbolic young lovers/would-be revolutionaries out of the way. Aiding President Snow's designs are Plutarch, the game builder (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He envisions turning the public against Katniss.

They spent more on production design for this wintry, woodsy sequel to "The Hunger Games." Lawrence has since won an Oscar and has grown into a formidable young woman, and Hutcherson's voice has deepened and has real screen presence, now. The acting is better, with Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Claflin brought in as games players.

Lionsgate hired an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Simon "Slumdog Millionaire" Beaufoy) and "Constantine"/"I Am Legend" director Francis Lawrence to handle both this film and the upcoming pair of "Mockingjay" movies. Which doesn't exactly pay dividends. Francis Lawrence is nobody's idea of an A-list sci-fi director.

Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, the veteran of the Games who conspires to keep our two Mockingjay lovebirds alive, evolves into a nobler if still boozy mentor. Elizabeth Banks has even more outlandish costumes and makeup as Effie, the couple's PR consultant, but nothing funny to say or play.

Only Stanley Tucci, all teeth and purple hair in a ponytail, wrings laughs from this grim slog through the middle acts of novelist Suzanne Collins' young-adult opus.

Not that it's supposed to be that amusing, but something is needed to break up the glumness. Deep thoughts about re-directing cynically manipulated celebrity, lump-in-the-throat moments at people rising up against their oppressors, a couple of memorable deaths and attempts at sacrifice are flat when there's nothing around them to serve as contrast.

"Catching Fire" has promising themes where young people trapped in a cutthroat competition question authority and try to reason their way out of a kill-or-be-killed fate.

But the sad realization sinks in, just as the fashion show is ending and the action movie is beginning, that this is as good as Lionsgate cares to make these pictures. The die is cast for the rest of the series.

Maybe "Divergent," the March 2014 "Hunger Games" knockoff starring Shailene Woodley, will be better.