Movie Review: The Hunger Games Catching Fire

Saw this one the night it came out – so much hype around it! I’ve let it stew for a week to make sure I was giving it fair thought.

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Starring:
Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson
Director:
Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend)
Rating: M
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After all the excitement that came along with the wonderfully realised film adaptation of the first Hunger Games book (to which I gave a glowing review last year), I find myself in a weird position regarding its sequel. The end-of-year blockbuster has done little to change my opinion that Catching Fire is the weakest of the three chapters in Suzanne Collins‘ young adult novel trilogy story-wise, but Catching Fire the movie is so cleverly made, so effectively acted and so tonally spot-on that I am forced to admit, with some degree of surprise, that it is every bit as good as its predecessor.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up where the first movie left off, with the feisty Katniss Everdeen (played with usual intensity by Jennifer Lawrence) having won the evil Capitol’s 74th annual Hunger Games bloodbath. Things are awkward between Katniss and her fellow victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who lives nearby in the otherwise largely deserted District 12 Victors’ Village. The fake romance the two had to perpetuate in front of the Capitol’s cameras in order to ensure their survival was a little more real for Peeta than it was for Katniss, meaning the two have grown apart somewhat since the truly horrific experience they had to endure together. But that is the least of their problems.

Katniss’ defiant ‘berry incident’ at the end of the Games has given the twelve districts of Panem something truly dangerous: hope that they might be able to escape the tyrannical clutches of the supercity’s government. This doesn’t sit too well with its ruler, Donald Sutherland‘s creepy President Snow, who visits Katniss in person at the beginning of the story. He warns her that she had better begin to act like a polite Capitol supporter head over heels in love with Peeta on her upcoming Victory Tour of the twelve districts, or else there is going to be hell to pay. What happens next, unfortunately, has already been spoiled by just about every Catching Fire trailer except for its first one. Katniss is forced to re-enter the Hunger Games for its special 75th edition, the so-called Quarter Quell, along with several other former victors. That’s when things get really interesting.

Catching Fire is directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation to the film’s leading lady) rather than the original’s Gary Ross. The first thing viewers will likely notice that gives away the change of director is the distinct lack of shaky-cam this time around. If you weren’t a fan of the filming technique in the first Hunger Games (I didn’t mind it for the most part), you will likely rejoice at this decision. What is undeniably commendable about Lawrence‘s direction, however, is his sublime understanding of Catching Fire‘s tone. In my review of the original Hunger Games last year I mentioned that the film struggled to capture the very grave wider implications of Katniss’ actions, but from the very beginning of Catching Fire there is a formidable sense of dread that only grows more intense as bad things start to happen to good people. The director’s small choices of shots and motifs all add up nicely here.

The trade-off to ensuring this mood gets across is a rather top-heavy film. It takes more than an hour and a half, longer than some movies, for the story to reach its version of the Hunger Games arena, which given the novel’s 50-50 split is just too long. I’m no director myself, but it really does seem like a few of the preparation scenes for the Games could have been cut considering how similar they are to the corresponding scenes in the first movie. But that’s just me. The film spends about 45 excellent minutes in the arena itself and this is where Catching Fire‘s gigantic budget really flexes its muscle. The special effects, of which much is required, are much better here than in the more modest original film. This lends itself to some harrowing sequences when combined with the high performance quality (once again) across the board.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a wonderfully ranged performance throughout the film, as usual, and even though he was good in the first film Hutcherson really nails the role of Peeta, which is much meatier this time. Liam Hemsworth handles his extra screen time well as love triangle hypotenuse Gale, whetting the audience’s appetite for his even larger presence in the final two films of the saga. Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks do fine jobs again, as do most of the returning cast, while newcomers Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone and especially Sam Claflin (as Finnick) shine as former victors forced against their will back into their worst nightmares. Then there is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is, well, he’s Philip Seymour Hoffman.

One final nitpick: the kiss count in this film is too damn high. I am sure someone high up at Lionsgate thought it was a good idea to emphasise Katniss’ love triangle a la Twilight to help sell the film, but the extra tonsil hockey only ends up doing the character a disservice. Katniss is supposed to be far from a female Casanova and her feelings for both Gale and Peeta are meant to be much more ambiguous than Catching Fire the movie seems to suggest. There is a crucial moment late in the story that is meant to set her feelings in a certain direction in the novel, but in the movie I fear its impact is muddied by all the prior out-of-context romance. But I digress. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has turned out to be an excellent adaptation of a novel I was never exactly a fan of, and if this kind of quality can be maintained into the amazing final chapter of the Hunger Games series, colour me very excited for those last two movies.

And how cool is that final CGI sequence with the mockingjay pin?

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Lawrence and co are great, near-perfect tone, much improved look, fantastic final third
Bad:
Top-heavy pacing, muddied romantic subplots
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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