Movie Review – Hunger Games, The: Catching Fire

Principal Cast :   Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer.
Synopsis:    Katniss and Peeta are returned to the Hunger Games arena after President Snow decides he wants to crush Katniss’ rising popularity with the poorer Districts.


More murderous mayhem.

Long time readers of this site will know my thoughts on the original Hunger Games flick: I couldn’t get past the “sanctioned murder” elements of the franchise, and the “entertainment” of the film was… less than satisfying. Going into Catching Fire, the sequel to the hugely popular original film, I fully expected to be just as annoyed with the central premise as earlier, only this time I tried to put my personal feelings to one side and appreciate the film on its merits. In saying that, it’s damn hard to not watch a film without one’s emotional responses to a film coming out, so this review will reflect that inability on my behalf. Did I find Catching Fire to be as hard-to-stomach as the original, or is it a sequel that achieves everything Hunger Games could not?

We solemnly swear to act like Nazis.
We solemnly swear to act like Nazis.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), having survived the events of The Hunger Games, feted as heroes to the oppressed citizens of Panem, who have begun to rebel against those who seek to keep them persecuted. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), now with a new Games Master in the form of Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), become increasingly frustrated by the poorer districts of Panem’s refusal to acquiesce to the Capitol’s dictatorship. A rebellious movement has begun, stemming from Katniss and Peeta’s escape from the Hunger Games a year prior, and the more the pair tacitly refuse to conform, the more people see them as heroes of the rebellion. Snow, using a manufactured clause in the Hunger Games charter, uses the 75th anniversary of the Games as a way of finally destroying Katniss’ public image, by throwing all the previous winners of the Games back in for a “super size me” event. Peeta, Katniss, and a host of newcomers must fight to the death in a new and more deadly Games arena, even as the looming threat of civil war erupts around them.

My, that's a lovely dress. Mind if I try it on?
My, that’s a lovely dress. Mind if I try it on?

Midway through Catching Fire’s thunderous climactic Games sequence, I could feel the bile in my throat. The unsanctioned, unopposed hatred for this film’s setting once again rose to the surface, bubbling away as I watched Katniss, Peeta, Cale (Liam Hemsworth, in a role I can only hope is given more scope in the two Mockingjay sequels), and newcomers Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Jena Malone), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) running about a tropical jungle setting trying to avoid certain death. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m meant to find the Hunger Games scenario hateful, an arc that will hopefully provide a satisfactory payoff when President Snow (and the “Peacekeepers”) finally get their comeuppance. Panem’s autocratic society rankles my nose, the persecution and outright murder of countless innocents (including the Games’ combatants) in the name of remembering some past, long-forgotten holocaust, not sitting right with me. It angers me (which I guess is a good thing, meaning I wouldn’t ever stand for this if it happened in real life) but it does so at the cost of making me hate the movie for it.

Say, check those boobs out over there!
Say, check those boobs out over there!

Aside from that, Catching Fire delivers plenty of cool moments. The lengthy set-up which opens the film, where Katniss and Peeta are trotted out like performing monkeys to celebrate the upcoming Hunger Games, and the districts’ hatred of it being thwarted by reprisals against agitators through supreme violence by the Capitol’s Peacekeeper force, serve to remind us just how dire things are outside the glitzy, glamorous Panem. I guess the Hunger Games world feels a lot like the current climate around the globe with financial markets and the super-rich owning 99% of the world wealth, while the rest of us suffer in relative poverty or hardship. The unfairness of life, the harsh reality faced by the denizens of Panem, all brought vividly to life by director Francis Lawrence’s solid work. Lawrence, better known as the director of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, and Robert Pattinson’s lacklustre Water For Elephants, forgoes the use of the shaky-cam handiwork which encumbered the first film’s visual aesthetic, providing a better audience appreciation for the action sequences. The Games arena, set in a tropical jungle environment, surrounded by force-fields and filled with new and exciting dangers, is well mounted; major points for some cool sequences involving ferocious baboons, a spinning island in the midst of a giant lake of water, and a lightning-struck tree that never burns, Catching Fire has plenty of spectacle, but remains a fairly intimate story focusing a lot more on the Peeta/Katniss relationship this time around.

Yeah, this scuba gear probably isn't suitable for this class....
Yeah, this scuba gear probably isn’t suitable for this class….

Jennifer Lawrence having won an Oscar between the original Hunger Games and this film, returns with a vengeance here, imbuing Katniss with all the fragility, internal strength and conflict her character possesses. An unwilling symbol of hope for Panem’s poorer inhabitants, Katniss finds herself the sudden focus of not only a concerted attempt to rebel against the Capitol, but also an attempt to destroy her public image through subjecting her to all manner of torments within the Games itself. Lawrence gives Katniss depth, making us feel her pain, her fears and her questionable loyalty to Cale, so that when she eventually bonds with Peeta for real (until the Games, they merely pretend to be in love), the audience isn’t left thinking she’s just a little bit slutty. There’s reality to her performance, and for a genre flick like this, that’s commendable. Josh Hutcherson is given a lot more to do in this film than he did in the previous, with Peeta becoming more proactive in the narrative and the emotional journey; Hutcherson seems to have filled out a lot more too, making him seem more physically capable of not only matching it with Katniss, but also within the Games.

The elderly Vulcan Mind-Meld.
The elderly Vulcan Mind-Meld.

New Tribute characters abound, although only a few are given much scope within the film – Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee, Jena Malone’s Johanna, and Sam Claflin’s Finnick stick around for most of the film, with Finnick’s arrogance and pretty-boy demeanour at the start giving way to a jaded, somewhat lost and forlorn figure by the end. Seeing Amanda Plummer in the kooky role of Wiress is jarring, but she carries it well considering how minor it is. The rest of the film is littered with big names, many reprising from the first film (Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz), while new franchise player Philip Seymour Hoffman replaces Wes Bentley’s Seneca Crane as the mastermind of the Games. Hoffman gives the bizarrely named Plutarch Heavensbee a sly glint of playfulness beneath his morbid, deathly demeanour, and it’s fun to watch him work against an actor as masterful as Sutherland. Sutherland, meanwhile has a ball playing the evil, cruel President Snow, and by God they’d better have him die a horrible, painful death at the end of all this, otherwise I’ll burn down the house. Elizabeth Banks does her best as the shallow, never-stray-from-the-line Effie, while Woody Harrelson brings more subtlety to the usually drunk Haymitch, as the stakes raise higher in Catching Fire than they did in the original movie. Oh, and Stanley Tucci once again out-acts everyone he’s on the screen with.

Don't look now, but Liam Hemsworth is trying to move in on your screen-time.
Don’t look now, but Liam Hemsworth is trying to move in on your screen-time.

What really stuck in my mind, though, as I sat down to type this review, is just how quickly and suddenly the film finishes. The final act (final scene, actually) twist, once Katniss escapes the Games again (a fact I’d hardly consider a spoiler since she’s in the upcoming sequels) feels like it comes out of left field, almost a desperate screenwriting trick designed to keep audiences off guard. It isn’t, because the film is based on a book so I’d suggest it would follow pretty closely in this respect, but the “cliffhanger” of an ending all at once feels forced and natural. That doesn’t make sense, but if you watch the film, it will. Katniss’ final look at the camera indicates some pretty decent action to come in the Mockingjay sequels, what with her “right, that’s it” anger and the sense that things are coming to a head – Katniss is sick of being a puppet to the Capitol, to everyone probably, and… if I can borrow from another film, “…mad as hell and not going to take it any more”. Problematically, the rebellion element of the story lacks coherence throughout the film; dialogue indicates that people are rising up to fight against the domination of the Capitol’s control, yet we never see it. The plight of the little people almost feels inconsequential to the filmmakers, as if the glee of Games action is inescapable. That said, that final scene doesn’t feel as well put together as the majority of the preceding 2 hours, as if they rushed into it to make sure people came back for the next film.

Ahh,the old flaming dress trick.
Molotov cock-and-vagina-tail.

Catching Fire is definitely the “middle child” film – there’s little context for the story here if you haven’t seen the original film (I guess that’s the way most franchise blockbusters are made now), and an ending that will no doubt leave viewers grasping at their calendars to mark off the days until Mockingjay Part 1 arrives in cinemas. The character development in Katniss is definitely stronger, the action is a lot lower-key than the original, and the machinations of Panem’s imminent insurrection begin to take solid form; Catching Fire won’t convert new viewers, but it drives the story along at a brisk pace, and delivers plenty of big-screen moment that make these kind of films memorable. Better than the first, but I still didn’t fall in love with it.

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4 thoughts on “Movie Review – Hunger Games, The: Catching Fire

  1. I'm finally weighing in. I read all the books before I watched the first film & I loved the books to the point that I binge read them. Rarely, do I find a book/movie combo that lives up to the hype but I have found the diamond in the rough. When I read the books, I knew only of J-Law & Sutherland's roles. Sutherland was perfectly cast and it wouldn't surprise me if the character in the book was based on him, at least a little.
    This was my favourite of all 4 movies. It showed that Katniss actually had a heart, in her care for others etc. The characters are exactly as written, which is a rarity these days. The plot is pretty close too. Obviously some of the sub-plots have to fall by the wayside to make way for the bigger picture.
    I agree in that it's there to be the go-between from Hunger Games to Mockingjay and the ending is just like the book. Leaves you a little WTF and wanting more at the same time.

    1. It's such as shame the series went into a nosedive after this film. Mockingjay Part 1 was atrocious. I've not read the books as there's only a finite amount of time in the day and I can use that to watch more movies, but there's been a fair amount of positivity for how this particular book-to-film translation went.

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